As we settle into our couches Sunday afternoon, hearts racing, Joe Buck and Troy Aikman will greet us from Dallas on our television sets and begin to lay out the events of the NFC Divisional Round playoff game between the Cowboys and Packers.
If social media is to be believed, most of us will sneer with distaste. As Fox's top announcing team, Aikman and Buck have been heavily vilified by Packers fans as “rooting against” the Green and Gold. The assumption has been in place for a while (along with its increasingly ardent backlash ridiculing the perception) that these two have a subconscious (or conscious?) agenda against the Packers and prefer to see them fail.
I’ve long been fascinated by the visceral negative reaction so many harbor when it comes to announcers, particularly national guys who call games with a stronger adherence to objectivity. I’ve heard Buck himself talk about the issue a couple times, and it’s impossible not to sympathize with a man who seems cursed to alienate his customers the better he does his job.
“And it's really not even personal, as funny as it sounds, it's kind of us against the world from a fan's perspective,” Buck told Esquire in October as he prepared to call baseball's World Series. “They'd much rather listen to their home announcers, but that's not my job, I have to split it down the middle. It's an unwinnable proposition. I know I got a lot of heat in Chicago during Game 6 (of the NLCS) because I talked about how great of a pitcher Clayton Kershaw is, but if you can't talk about that, that's ridiculous. That's half the matchup! Chicago fans were like 'We don't want to hear about Kershaw,' but that's my job! You just kind of laugh at it, understand it, don't take it personal and move on. It's kind of silly.”
Buck said the fan base he identifies as the most “passionate” is San Francisco. A quick Google search will inform you that every fan base has its own bone to pick with Joe Buck. It's not just Green Bay fans who have taken a dislike to Buck and his partner, Aikman (especially vilified here because Aikman will always be seen as a former Dallas Cowboys quarterback to the local fan base). Which brings up the first of many points attempting to explain why this negative perception exists: It’s a national thing, not a local thing. Pretty much every fan base finds national announcers to be biased or irritating for any number of reasons, and that extends to national beat writers (many of whom recycle the running joke that they are purported to “hate every team.”)
“For me, I go just as nuts about a Jordy Nelson touchdown as I would go about … whoever,” Buck said to Channel Guide Magazine before calling last Sunday’s battle between the Packers and the Giants. “Adam Thielen of the Vikings [for example]. But when they hear you get excited for Adam Thielen, they go, ‘Well, why’s he excited? That just beat my team.’ And you can’t do it any other way. Otherwise I’d be Wayne Larrivee. I’d be the Packer guy. Or I’d be whoever does the Vikings. So it’s kind of a weird space to live in, kind of being in the middle.
“I think when you look at it, the people that are really the biased ones are the ones that are claiming that you’re against their team. They care. They’re living and dying with every play. That said, there is no place on Earth that I would rather be than at Lambeau Field this Sunday at 3:30. That’s the honest-to-God’s truth. And Aikman’s the same way. That’s like football heaven. And fans care. I’m glad people care. It would be way worse if I did these games and people were like, ‘Who’s up there? Who’s that?’ I’ve done it for a long time so I’m sure I’ve said something along the way were they think, ‘Oh, he doesn’t like my team.’ I can tell you specifically in the case of the Packers, nothing could be further from the truth.”
When you watch video of Buck calling the Hail Mary completion before halftime between Aaron Rodgers and Randall Cobb, it’s easy to believe him. The call goes like this:
“Rodgers does this better than anybody … end zone … Cobb … TOUCHDOWN! UNBELIEVABLE!”
That doesn’t sound like an announcer frowning upon the Packers. So why do we still see it differently? Why is there a petition circulating on the internet asking the pair be removed from any Packers game going forward?
Here’s the play-by-play:
1. The universal dislike should give you a clue that the local perspective is skewed. If so many fan bases feel Buck and Aikman favor the opponent, then perhaps the real answer is that the announcers favor no one at all. Through some strange evolution in human nature, we’ve arrived at a point where national sports commentators are universally despised instead of beloved. As with any form of media, if both sides say you’re biased, you're properly staying down the middle.
2. Many fans have found their echo chamber. This applies to not just sports, especially in the era that brought us this most recent election. Social media and cable news contribute to this opportunity we’ve never had before where we can clothe ourselves in like-mindedness. Surrounded by those who feel how we do, our views are emboldened and the opposing views become increasingly difficult to acknowledge and understand. When someone proposes an idea that’s even modestly tilted opposite our preferred views, the reaction has never been more defensive. Down-the-middle interpretations can be seen as favoring the other side because every other facet of life has been focused strongly on one side.
3. We (literally) hear Joe when we least want to. When Aaron Rodgers threw the Hail Mary to Randall Cobb, did you hear what Joe Buck said? I didn’t. I was screaming. And heck, I was alone in my basement; if I had been in a bar or with even one other friend, there would have been high-fives and shouts and madness. I’m not hearing Joe and Troy when they’re favoring my team. But when the Giants score a touchdown or make a big play, I’m sullen and silent. Not only am I less-than-enthusiastic to hear someone be enthusiastic about the bad guys, I’m also paying closer attention to what the voices are saying than when the pictures send me into euphoria. It’s easy to see how a skewed perception would develop over time.
4. We project our frustration on the middle man. I can think of numerous examples outside of sports where I’ve been angry with the messenger. That’s a natural reaction. When we get bad news, we project on the nearest target, and as the voice of the events, it’s pretty obvious why Buck and Aikman would get the vitriol.
5. Announcers are acutely aware of educated fans. Fans watching at home know right where the first-down marker is thanks to the computerized yellow line; we’re following the game on Twitter, and the analytical tools available to fans permit a surplus of information that may even surpass what the announcers have at their fingertips. That’s particularly true as they’re trying to describe live action in detail and might miss the big picture on first or second glance. This is similar to increased attention on officials’ mistakes because we have replay to see things so clearly. When an announcer says something inaccurate, we know it instantly and circulate it broadly. That makes it tougher for announcers to be glib and loose, and moreover, tougher to simply enjoy.
6. And maybe, just maybe, there’s a little bit of understandable favoritism toward the other guy (but that’s a good thing). This isn’t really the case in the NFL playoffs, but announcers (and regular fans) are drawn to upsets. It’s natural to side with the unexpected result, or even to side with the idea of a close game. The good news for us? The Packers are phenomenal as a franchise. Not everyone may agree that Green Bay has maximized its output, but the eight consecutive trips to the playoffs matches New England for the longest active streak and second-longest in NFL history, and so the Packers are seldom in position to be the exciting, new upstart.
If people don't like Buck and Aikman, they have a right to their preference. But the idea that these two have an anti-Packers agenda is plainly absurd. It's not hard to turn on the radio and sync it with the television. The Packers-Cowboys game might be the right opportunity for fans to do just that.