At some point, scrolling through Facebook or Twitter, you’ve likely met Dale Hansen, the 70-year-old Texas sportscaster who goes “Unplugged” at moments of national distress, sitting the nation on his grandfatherly knee and trying to make sense of calamity after calamity.
“It was another shooting in America,” he said almost casually after the 2016 ambush that killed five police officers in downtown Dallas. “This is what I have become.”
“I’m not taking a side tonight, although I know you think I am,” he said discussing the “March for Our Lives” rally this spring after a massacre at a South Florida high school. “I’m just hoping the kids from Parkland don’t lose the passion they have now.”
Hansen, who’s part of WFAA’s nightly news in Dallas-Fort Worth, has explained Michael Sam’s place in the social fabric of the NFL. He has chastised high school basketball fans who held “White Power” signs. He finger-wagged President Trump and NFL franchise owners who want to halt football players’ demonstrations during the national anthem.
“My best friend in high school was killed in Vietnam, and Carroll Meier will be 18 years old forever and he did not die so that you can decide who is a patriot and who loves America more,” he said last September.
Hansen went viral again this week with a biting commentary on Cowboys owner Jerry Jones’s suggestion that the team would employ a hard-line national anthem policy, mandating players stand “toe on the line” during “The Star-Spangled Banner.” (The NFL and the NFL Players Association are continuing to negotiate a policy for the upcoming season.)
“Jones loves the national anthem so much that when it was being played before the start of practice Saturday, he left his cap on,” Hansen said. “And when he was told about the mistake that he was making, he still left his cap on. He who makes the rules apparently doesn’t have to follow them.”
In an interview this week, Hansen talked about going “Unplugged,” and how a sportscaster in Texas finds the time and authority to share a progressive message with a viewership that might not want to listen. Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.
How do you wear both hats of giving people regular sports news and then also reading your opinion pieces?
You pick up the newspaper, and for those of us who like sports, you go to the sports section, and what’s the first thing you read? You read the column. People ask me, “Are you a reporter or a columnist?” And I say, “Yes, yes, I am.” I encompass, as every sportscaster does, the roles of columnist and news reporter, opinion and straightforward information.
How did you start writing your “Unplugged” columns?
I started doing a thing in 1982 called “Thank God for Kids,” and I do it at Christmastime every year. It’s a song by the Oak Ridge Boys. We put the video back, you know, and I would start writing little pieces usually about a child who had been killed or a family who had lost a son — typical gut-wrenching, heartwarming stories. And that’s when I started writing more than just staccato, typical, nonsensical sportscast fashion. I tried to start writing something that had a little more panache to it.
I only write when something moves me, and the station gives me the freedom to do it. I write about social issues, but they’re social issues that take place at a sporting event. I think I’ve got carte blanche to write about the national anthem because it’s happening at a football game. I think it’s natural for a sportscaster to talk about. Right or wrong, I have to be more than a sportscaster. I want to be more than a sportscaster.
All I want to do, seriously, is to get people to talk. I want you to talk about this issue, to think about this issue, to consider what you’re saying about this issue. And I promise you, I’ve never said anything I don’t believe.
Tell me about one of the segments that’s stood out to you. What’s the story behind how it comes together?
There’s the Michael Sam commentary. [Sam, a defensive end from Missouri, was the 2013 Southeastern Conference defensive player of the year and announced he was gay months before the 2014 NFL draft, in which was predicted to be a third- to fifth-round selection before his announcement. He was selected by the St. Louis Rams in the seventh round, then cut in the preseason.]
I read it to a friend of mine and he said, “Yeah, I think that’s okay.” And I’m like, “Okay? I’m thinking it’s a little better than okay.” And I read it to another more liberal friend of mine and he goes, “Yeah, I think that’s fine.” And I said, “Fine?”
So I’m sitting there having a cigar and a glass of wine with two buddies of mine, and one of them is an incredibly liberal guy and the other guy’s so-so, and both of them just looked at me and said, “Yeah that should work.” So I get on the air that night, I promise you, thinking it’s okay. It’s fine. It should work.
I do the commentary, and a buddy of mine pokes his head around the camera and says, “What do you think the reaction to that will be?” And I said, “Oh, a hundred people will email me and 50 of them will love me and 50 of them will hate me,” which is somewhat usually the case.
And I get home and I have like 125 emails. I get up in the morning I have 500. I got to work I had over a thousand. Now they’re coming in from all over the country and all over the world. It’s kind of embarrassing to say this maybe, but I had no idea what “viral” meant. I didn’t know how it worked. And I actually said to someone, “How big of an antenna do these son-of-a-bitches have?” I mean, they’re seeing this in California and Toronto and Australia and London, and it all came from a commentary that I kind of liked and I thought it had some good lines in it and made a pretty good argument. But I also didn’t think that one would have the impact that it has.
You are admittedly a liberal guy. Why do you think your columns, which you read to mainly conservative viewers in North Texas, resonate so widely and viscerally?
At the end of the day, I think people are fascinated that a fat, white guy in a deep red state can make these comments that a lot of people don’t want to hear.
I don’t think there’s any question that there are a great number of people who identify with me. The Democrats have won six of the last eight presidential elections by the popular vote. I’m old enough to remember when you were referred to as a conservative, that was embarrassing. If you did support the war, you were the person who was in the way of America’s best interests.
Somehow, someway, even during the Reagan years, people weren’t embarrassed to say they were liberal. Now it’s used as an insult. Nixon had the silent majority. I think in many ways that we liberals now are the silent majority. I think there are a great many people out there who are afraid to raise their voice because they’ll be called a liberal.
For someone with such strong political convictions, you say you haven’t voted for the longest time. Why?
My last real vote was for George McGovern in 1972. He was such a disappointment as a candidate. I started to get disillusioned. I voted for Jimmy Carter in 1976 in the Iowa primary, and he disappointed me even more. And I just said, “The hell with it. It doesn’t matter.” And in many ways I don’t think it did.
We’ve gone from Democrats to Republicans from liberals to conservatives from war hawks to doves. The economy bounces up and down, and we go to war and we don’t go to war. That’s why I just took on this approach of, “Well, I’m just going to make a check and have fun and live my life and do my job and talk sports, and the rest of it just doesn’t matter.”
And then as I got a little bit older, when my daughter, who is married to a black man, had had my granddaughter, I started seeing what people would do to her, and what my own parents said about my granddaughter, and what my ex-wife said about my granddaughter. I then started slowly evolving back into somebody who has to speak up. I think I’ve recaptured my passion.
So how about now? Will you vote in the midterm elections?
I’m going to start again. Because I was wrong. I wanted the perfect candidate, and I didn’t want to be the guy who voted for the lesser of two evils. But I’ve learned that when you don’t vote for the lesser of two evils, sometimes the more evil guy wins.
One of the pieces you’re most well-known for was your commentary after the police shooting in Dallas in 2016. How did you find a way to tie that to sports?
My general manager called me like at 8 o’clock the next morning and said, “I want you to write about this tonight.” And I said, “How will I possibly write about that?” I work very hard to find a sports connection that allows me to jump off to the social issue argument and then I kind of work my way back to sports, but I had no idea how I’d do that this time.
It felt awkward as hell, and then as I’m driving to work, I swear to you, this lightbulb goes off. When that shooting started, I was at my desk with my feet up on my desk watching the Rangers game and they were being shut out in like the fifth inning, and then all hell broke loose in my city. And that’s how I started the piece. I said, “I was sitting at my desk last night watching the Rangers getting shut out in the fifth inning, and then all hell broke loose in my city,” and then I wrote this entire piece. And I finished with, “The Rangers lost last night, 7-2, and I’m almost embarrassed to tell you I know that.”
It’s a social issue, but I can talk about it in the larger picture of sports. I think it’s actually appropriate that a sportscaster would do that. I can’t just “shut up and dribble.”
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