Media Watch: Billy Packer’s Retirement is Addition by Subtraction

November 30, 2008

In any industry, a little self-policing is a good thing. It’s no different with our peers in the press. After a long career as a college basketball broadcaster, one of those peers, Billy Packer, decided to hang it up. For college basketball fans across the country, the quality of your future March Madness experience has just improved.

As a broadcaster, Packer gained some initial fame as part of a legendary 1970’s television team consisting of Dick Enberg, Packer, and Al McGuire. Enberg, long the voice of Wooden’s UCLA teams, was the smooth and ever-gracious play-by-play man. But both Enberg and Packer knew their roles were subordinate to the real star of that team -- the hilarious and unpredictable McGuire.

Later, Packer got linked with Jim Nantz at CBS, and they became that network’s number one announcing team. Why the network suits made them the premiere team is somewhat of a mystery, given that other more witty tandems could have filled that slot.

How bad were Nantz and Packer? Well, to be fair, there were admittedly worse alternatives.

As a color man, Packer was technically superior to the horrific Dick Vitale. With Vitale, you know he’s going to overpraise the ACC, even when, as last year, that conference was a second-rate laughing stock compared to the Big East and Pac 10. Packer was far more objective.

During games with Dickie V, valuable air time for X’s and O’s is substituted for nonsensical stream-of-consciousness ramblings about the “General Robert Montgomery Knight,” next year’s recruiting class, and his own enthusiastic, fan-like cheers. Packer, on the other hand, consistently tried to point out to fans what defense was being played at the time, and what a team could do to exploit that defense.

To his credit, Packer also provided good insight on the Tournament Selection show, addressing which teams got robbed, and previewing the interesting matchups ahead.

But the fact that Packer did these things just made him industry-average, without the extra personality and style that a Bill Rafferty or Clark Kellog brought to the booth.

So what specifically was so bad about Nantz and Packer?

#1 Wonder Bread, Vanilla-Level Blandness

Nantz could be an ideal set-up guy for a charismatic color analyst. He is non-threatening to middle America, sufficiently generic, and a good second banana who will humbly shut up when the real broadcasting star is running his mouth. He does not take bold stances, criticize the officiating, or crack jokes, and is a good company yes man.

The problem with teaming him with Packer, is that Packer also lacked a sense of humor. Therefore, the inevitable result was an all-business, no humor broadcast. On games when the analysis was accurate, the lack of personality was less of an issue. However, when that analysis was questionable, the irritation for the viewer was that much greater because the Packer-Nantz combo couldn’t charm their way through the rough spots.

An example of this blandness was seen sometimes when a horrible officiating call was made. In such circumstances, Packer and Nantz would note the foul, and then go on to say that one side was upset about the call. Missing from the broadcast would be their own analysis of the call. No opinion was offered either way, whether good or bad. To the passionate and irate fan looking for an “Amen” from the broadcasters, nothing could be more annoying.

#2 Unnecessary and Extreme Focus on Fatigue

Come rain or shine, every broadcast, Billy Packer would focus to an extreme extent on fatigue. Within a couple minutes of the opening tipoff, he would frequently search for signs of a player being gassed. When he found his fatigue “indicator,” he would ramble on about that player’s tired state incessantly, possession after possession, until that player was substituted.

Yes, fatigue is an issue worthy of discussion in games. But Packer took it too far. Forty minute hoop contests were made to feel like a triathlon. Young, athletic college kids with a full season of conditioning under their belts were portrayed as being on the verge of collapse.

The worst part of this analysis was that sometimes the alleged fatigue had no affect on the game at hand. Where no evidence of lazy reach fouls or short, front-rimming jump shots could be found, Packer still would beat his fatigue theme to exhaustion, no pun intended.

#3 Excessively Reciting Useless NCAA Trivia

Every broadcast, without fail, Packer and Nantz would quiz each other about NCAA Tournament trivia. Occasionally, the trivia was interesting. But this was rare. More often, the information came across as minimally relevant to the game at hand.

The other noteworthy aspect of these trivia tests was that Packer and Nantz genuinely enjoyed their exchanges. They found the questions challenging and thoroughly entertained themselves with their trips down memory lane.

Unfortunately, they assumed that the viewer also would be enthralled by such information as well. As a result, game play-by-play was sometimes interrupted for such talk, and the broadcasts suffered.

#4 Stain of Bigotry

This last factor only applies to Packer, not Nantz.

On his broadcasts, Packer came across as a friendly gentleman. During his postgame interviews with the players, he acted politely and with respect.

However, this journalist will never forget the day when he called Allen Iverson of Georgetown a “tough little monkey.” Iverson was having an excellent game at the time, fearlessly driving into the paint, as is his trademark. Ironically, Packer was trying compliment his hard-nosed play, and spontaneously uttered that remark. When given a chance to explain himself moments later, Packer elaborated on AI’s toughness and height, while avoiding any discussion as to the monkey reference.

What that remark probably revealed is that under the surface, Packer had internalized that racist stereotype of African-Americans. His blurt out was not the product of some misguided creative impulse, but rather seemed to be his under-the-surface personal view, which in the heat of the moment, accidentally bypassed his mental “don’t say it” roadblocks, and rose to the surface.

Would he have made a similar statement about a tough, short white player, such as a Bobby Hurley? It’s possible. But it’s also possible that such notions never would enter his thought process with a white athlete.

The flipside of this argument would be that Packer always seemed to command the respect of his African-American broadcasting peers while on the air. Whether that cordiality was simply professionalism at work, or genuine respect, no animosity was ever displayed on the air.

So, why not give Billy the benefit of the doubt? Could his AI remark have been made innocently? Are we perhaps overanalyzing one flippant comment in a long career?

If we look only at his broadcasts, almost all of those broadcasts would be free of controversy. At times he actually was quite progressive, as unlike some of his peers, he often praised black athletes and coaches for their intelligence and decision-making.

Then again, there was the time in 2000, when he berated and made sexist comments to some Duke female student employees who asked to see his press pass.

Ultimately, only Billy Packer knows where his true feelings lie. But the viewers did not, and therein lies the problem. That uncertainty always tainted the broadcast to a degree. Whether fair or not, one couldn’t help but wonder if Packer, in the back of his mind, was thinking some cracker-like thoughts about the players during his broadcasts. For that matter, did the athletes and coaches themselves wonder about him while he conducted his interviews?

Now such worries have been swept aside. Imagine March Madness now with some humor. Imagine a geriatric official actually having to take some media heat for his absurd call. Imagine the focus back on where it should be -- basketball.

By Mike Elliott
Staff Editor for

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