When David Tyree made the legendary Helmet Catch in Super Bowl XLII, football fans everywhere bemoaned the blasé response of Emmy Award-winning FOX sportscaster Joe Buck. “Only one of the biggest, most improbable plays in Super Bowl history and Buck calls it like it’s a second down in the third quarter of Week 6,” noted a reader to the e-mailbag of ESPN columnist Bill Simmons. Even Simmons, a diehard New England fan, had to agree. “Glad you brought this up,” he responded. “If you’re a play-by-play announcer and you can’t get excited for a play like that, then why are you doing this for a living?”
As ancient and organic as sporting events are, sports commentary is a product of modernity, particularly our postmodern desire to make every moment as memorable as it is linear, as contextualized as it is simplified. Removed from the hardwood court or the verdant field, analysts are omniscient third-person narrators that make sense of the chaos that is sports. Their goal is to insta-bronze events so that viewers world over can have the same interpretation of the same event; they explain pick and rolls and inside-out forehands with the same ease they deign to know what players are feeling and thinking. They create, in other words, a master narrative. That way, athletics can have the tonal gloss of a history textbook, complete with an epic story that has clear causes and clear effects. “Much of the content of commentary serves to heighten listeners’ appreciation of the drama unfolding on the field of play,” writes Gordon W. Russell in Aggression in the Sports World. “Guided by commentary, viewers see conflicts … as an expression of the athletes’ intense determination to dominate or win over their opponents” (106) .
But how necessary are analysts to our sporting experience? I surely do not miss them when I attend football games for my Baltimore Ravens. I may be shivering in the cold of winter, sandwiched between two obnoxious drunkards in the nosebleeds of M&T Bank Stadium, but not once is my misery compounded by the thought that I don’t get to listen to Phil Simms or Dan Dierdorf break down what I just saw live in front of me. What I lose in not hearing them explain (correctly, we’ll assume) that a sack was caused by the fullback’s missed block, or that a play-action pass worked well because the defense saw a diehard run look, is compensated threefold by hearing the steel-link sound that’s pumped through the speakers when we “move the chains”; in commiserating with fellow fans during the raw tension of a big moment; in watching a play–an inexplicable thing that seems to fail or succeed at random on TV–unfold like magic before my eyes. “Look! He faked the block and now he’s running wide open to the flat! SEE HIM, JOE!!!”
And that’s not to say one has to be at an event to enjoy announcer-less athletics. At the start of this year’s Australian Open, I sat glued to my computer screen watching a tennis match between Stan “the Man” Wawrinka, the second-most relevant Swissman in professional tennis (out of two), and Marcos Baghdatis, a puckish Cypriot who has been underachieving for years. A second-round match between two players with a combined 30% chance of being relevant in the slam’s later stages–and yet there was a strange, earthy, almost intoxicating vibe to what I saw. All at once I felt close to the action, a part of it, and adrift in it. Eventually I realized that the international server from which I was getting the feed had included courtside audio but silenced booth commentary. Accidental genius.
All I could hear was the crowd reacting, the umpire calling score, the linesmen shrieking, the players grunting, and their sneakers squeaking. It was so real it almost felt wrong. I noticed things I tend to overlook. I could see the fear in Baghdatis’ eyes as he served to stay in the match. Conversely, I could see the confidence in Wawrinka’s gait as he gunned for the break. I could feel that the crowd in Melbourne, though seven thousand miles away from me, thought the exact same thing that I did: Wawrinka would prevail. (He did, in fact.) But I could likewise feel that the Aussies were so rabidly delirious over being at a tennis match, they didn’t care who won. These are the nuanced, gut-based sensations that are essential to experiencing sports–to being a part of the spectacular collective–that are drowned out by analysts who give the action an all-too-obvious rhythm, meaning and arc.
Hall of Fame basketball coach Phil Jackson once said, “Approach the game with no preset agendas and you’ll probably come away surprised at your overall efforts.” He was referring to players, but it applies to fans too. If you have a chance to experience sports without commentary, don’t pass it up. What you see will be less legend, and more real life.
Photo courtesy Best Week Ever /  Russell, Gordon W. Aggression in the Sports World: A Social Psychological Perspective. Oxford: New York, 2008.