John Robertson February 1 1975


John Robertson February 1 1975



John Robertson

Almost without exception, every radio and TV description of professional hockey, football and baseball games in North America, is a “house” broadcast — a paid ad in its entirety, designed to sell the product to the public rather than report the games as straight news.

The commentators fall into three categories. They are either directly on the payroll of the home team (as is Dave Van Horne of the Montreal Expos); or they work for the agency handling the TV package for individual clubs (as do Danny Gallivan and Billy Hewitt of Hockey Night In Canada)’, or they are employees of stations that have negotiated for broadcasting rights, (just about all Canadian Football League and National Football League radio and TV broadcasters), and have given the league implied veto-power on what is said and who says it on the air during games.

This is why you’ll never hear Dave Van Horne lean over to his telecasting partner Duke Snider — who doubles as an Expo batting instructor when he’s not in the broadcasting booth — and say:

“Duke, old buddy, it’s only the sixth inning, but the Expos are trailing 10-1 and they look so awful even the wheelchair patients are laying down rubber as they roll out of the park in disgust. Don’t you wish you could take a hike with them instead of having to sit through the rest of this turkey?” Similarly, you will never hear Billy Hewitt say anything resembling: “Well, folks, the Washington Watergates are the visitors tonight, \md if the NHL had any sense of decency they’d make them wear unlisted numbers.”

Likewise you will never hear CBC’s Don Chevrier (above) say: “The Argonauts are so bad this year, folks, I don’t know why they don’t let the fans in for nothing and charge them to get out. They have a halfback named Rex Oedipus, who is destined to be a superstar if the coach can break him of just one bad habit. He sucks his thumb while he carries the ball. They have a quarterback, Frank Flinger, who is so dumb they have to type the plays on the inside of his eyelids. Their best pass catcher, Charlie Clutch, missed the last three road games because he keeps dropping his boarding pass and assuming the fetal position everytime he hears footsteps behind him at the airport.”

In just about every professional sports broadcast you can almost hear the play-by-play man humming “. . . you got to accentuate the positive; eliminate the negative; latch on to the affirmative, and don’t mess with Mr. In-Between . . .” as he takes deep breaths between each shovelful of superlatives.

In the United States, the play-by-play commentaries have become so slanted toward huckstering the product that the Federal Communications Commission — the U.S. equivalent of the Canadian Radio-Television Commission — has made it a rule that all announcers must disclose the source of their employment on the air during each game.

So you’re going to hear such things as: “Well, fans, this is your old friend Biff Barf, the voice of the Buffalo Bills. They own me right down to the tips of my curled-up toes.

They pay me to say only nice things about the Bills but anyone who knows me knows I’d say the same things for nothing, because I am terrified of offending those big hairy brutes down on the field. And now let’s pause for a 60-minute commercial featuring the Bills and the Chicago Walruses.” Vin Scully, the voice of the Los Angeles Dodgers and perhaps the best play-by-play broadcaster in all of professional sports, bristles when newspaper reporters get on him for not being more critical of the Dodgers, who pay his salary. “When sports writers rap me for these omissions,” says Scully, “I ask them if they knock their publishers in print. If the managing editor gets into a fight with his wife, does the paper run the story?”

Actually, most newspapermen would be severely embarrassed if they were made to disclose everything they accepted in the way of favors and gratuities from the teams they cover.

For example, when I covered baseball for the Montreal Star and traveled with the Expos for two full seasons, it was pretty much a gravy-train. We newspapermen flew on the team charters at no charge. We were escorted, if we chose, to and from airports and hotels in a limousine, also paid for by the team. And every night, whether the team was at home or on the road, the stadium we happened to be at provided the press with all the free food and booze we wanted. A few chosen ones could also pick up $40 a night by acting as official league scorers, and you could collect $100 a pop to do puff pieces for the home club’s programs. At Christmas, the club traditionally dispenses handsome gifts to the writers, up to and including television sets.

The Montreal Canadiens used to pick up the tab for all transportation for certain writers, but some of these same journalists were made to go to the coach every day, hat in hand, to get their meal allowance. Under that system, getting along, as I do with coaches, I would have starved to death.

Until a couple of years ago, the National Hockey League paid the shot for any hockey writer from any league city to come and cover the Stanley Cup finals. I can vividly remember Clarence Campbell at one Stanley Cup Final awards dinner, announcing from the head table: “Will all writers who have availed themselves of the hospitality of the league, please come forward and pick up their cheques.”

As long as this goes on in the print medium we can hardly point a finger of scorn at broadcasting housemen. The only difference between the two is that sports writers can lap up the gravy and still retain the illusion of independence by occasionally snapping in print at the hand that feeds them.

Which reminds me of the story of the man who approached a stunning young thing at a party and said: “Would you sleep with me for a million dollars?”

“I just might,” cooed the girl.

“How about for $50 dollars?” asked the man. At which point the girl snorted: “Just what do you think I am?”

“We’ve already established what you are,” said the man. “All we are doing now is haggling over your price.”