Sports on TV Better with the Sound Off

When my father took me to my first NFL game in 1974, Jets-Dolphins at Shea Stadium, I was eager to see, in real life, the big stars -- Larry Csonka, Bob Griese, Paul Warfield and Joe Namath. But my father told me "Don't follow ball. For a set of downs, just watch two linemen go at it." I have never watched a football game the same since -- at least not one I attended.

Six years later (December 20, 1980), NBC chose the Jets-Dolphins game for an experiment. They broadcast the game with no television announcers. The sounds from the stands and the PA announcer served as the sole audio. No players were mic'd. There were, as the great Red Smith wrote at the time:

"no banalities, no pseudo-expert profundities phrased in coachly patois, no giggles, no inside jokes, no second-guessing, no numbing prattle."

The drama emanated from the contest on the field and nowhere else. I loved it. The broadcast was dazzling in its purity. It was as close to being at the Stadium as you could get without being at the Stadium. It's what a real game sounded and looked like. No network has ever produced an announcer-less game since.* More is the pity.

We miss so much watching the game on television. The call of the TV announcer and the eye of the camera usually follows the ball or follows whatever it deems important (grimacing coaches, zaftig women, city skylines) and we the viewers follow accordingly. We have no choice. Our visual experience of the televised game of is dictated by a director trapped inside a production truck parked outside the arena. But the more profound influence is transmitted aurally via commentators who tell us what to watch, what's happening, what's important, what's on their mind and sometimes details as inane as what they had for lunch.

Perhaps, like me, you enjoy Dick Vitale's fatuous yodels, John Madden's onomatopoetic "boom, oomph, et. al.," or Tim McCarver's home-spun pearls of wisdom. Pat Summerall's brevity, Marv Albert's clarity (and wit) and Vin Scully's imagery are all to be greatly admired and adored. But given a choice of whether to experience the game as it is -- by actually being there -- or to consume the experience packaged, filtered and cosmeticized by television, I'll choose the former every time.

All the absurd amounts of graphics, multiple-angle slow motion replays, jarring sound effects and trivial statistics will never equal being there. The problem is we've become so addicted to the televised version that we don't know what the real game is anymore. So much so, that even once at the games we are no longer trusted to understand what we're seeing in front of us. That's why every sports franchise has a "Director of In-Arena Entertainment." This person's job is to manufacture excitement. He pumps in loud music to energize us, tells us when to clap, when to chant "DE-FENSE" and chooses apropos movie clips to motivate us. The very existence of this job assumes that the game itself is insufficient entertainment. The game itself is no longer enough because we don't know what we're watching -- whether it's significant, positive or negative -- unless someone tells us.

This is what Buzz Bissinger tried, however inelegantly, to warn against on Costas Now when he attacked the idea of sports bloggers who never leave the house. If you're not attending the event then you're not writing about sports but about a transmogrified version of sports transmitted through a limited medium. You're not experiencing the game like it really is. You're writing about something that is force fed to you in regurgitated form through the mouths and eyes of a production team. Bloggers' like to say theirs is "fan's perspective on sports." It's not. It's a fan's perspective on sports after it's been filtered through media. At a minimum it's sports one-step removed. And the further you get away from the real event the less you know what you're talking about. And, the more such trickled-down work product is consumed the "dumber" (Buzz's word) the sports viewing populace will become about the underlying subject: the sport itself.

Of course, not everyone can get to or afford to go to the game. And, TV cannot fill all the five senses. It can't make you feel the cold, the wind or the sun. It can't let you smell the grass or the pretzel vendor. But TV can and should endeavor to deliver you a sensory experience that approximates as closely as possible the experience of actually being there. The televised sports experience should, like the experience of being there, let you focus on the organic excitement, intricacy, suspense and beauty inherent in the contest. The way to do this is by doing less. Strip down the whole production.

Kill the announcers. Turn off the graphics. Let us hear and see just what we would if we were there. This way we'll think about more than what we're told to think about. We'll take our own journey, raise our own issues, draw our own conclusions and become an informed and engaged sports viewership that doesn't need escalating audio-visual effects to enjoy what it's watching. In other words, we'll be watching the game just like at the ball park. Hell, it might inspire some to actually go to a game.

In 2000 (20 years after NBC's no-announcers experiment) when Monday Night Football hired comedian Dennis Miller for their broadcast booth, John Madden was asked about the growing need to mix sports and entertainment. He said "That's funny, I always thought the game itself was the entertainment." Me too.

*(In 2004, the budding NFL Network aired an edited one hour version of the preseason game between the Denver Broncos and Buffalo Bills featuring nothing but the sounds of the game - no announcers -- plus sound coming from microphones on sixteen players and coaches. In 2006, NFL Network upon began to air full games but lacked the courage to expand their 2004 experiment. Instead, they opted to go with Bryant Gumbel as their play-by-play man. We all know how well that worked out.)