You Stay Classy, Dallas: How a Texas Sports Anchor Became an Internet SensationElias Stein
After being hailed by Ellen DeGeneres, George Takei, and MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell, it was probably inevitable that sportscaster Dale Hansen would find a fan in Pakistan. He discovered her email in his work inbox one night.
“I’m assuming it was from Pakistan,” Hansen said last week. “It said it was. This woman is just writing about, as she put it, ‘the West.’”
The West has many freighted meanings. In this case, the Pakistani woman meant the 66-year-old who does sports at 6 and 10 p.m. for the ABC affiliate in Dallas.
“She wrote, ‘We always hear about how bad people are from your country. You give me hope.’” Hansen considered the magnitude of that sentiment. “Jesus,” he said.
For more than three decades, Dale Hansen has been a blustering, vainglorious, near-mythic figure in Dallas sportscasting. “From the time he got to Channel 8, he has been the unquestioned alpha dog over everybody and everything,” said Mike Rhyner, a sports radio host for KTCK. “The biggest name, the biggest cat down here.”
But now Hansen was becoming a moral beacon to the world. Several years ago, he began using the 10 p.m. newscast to deliver “Unplugged” commentaries that were equal parts lefty jeremiad, wicked punch line, and wrenching confession. Last February, his ringing defense of Michael Sam landed him on Ellen. He pilloried racists in the Dallas suburbs. Another time, Hansen told viewers that he was sexually assaulted on a baseball diamond at age 10, but had been too terrified and humiliated to admit it.
When we met, Hansen was still grinning about his latest “Unplugged.” On March 18, he blasted the Cowboys for signing defensive end Greg Hardy, an alleged domestic abuser. Hansen had dug up a quote from Jim Garrett, the 84-year-old father of Cowboys coach Jason Garrett, that he thought exposed intergenerational moral decay. Jim Garrett had once said of the NFL, “This isn’t the Boy Scouts.” Hansen flipped the father’s words to hang the son. “You taught him well, Jim,” he told his audience. “You taught him well.”
From one angle, Hansen is one of the last men standing of the Ron Burgundy age of local news. “He’s a TV dinosaur,” said Randy Galloway, a longtime sports columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and previously the Dallas Morning News. “He’s an old, fat white guy, as he calls himself, and there ain’t much of a market for old, fat white guys.”
But Hansen’s story isn’t one of pathos. Just as local news audiences were shrinking, Hansen was discovered by the young’uns who search the web for awesomeness. An Upworthy headline read: “Old White Guy Drops a Monster Speech on Anti-Gay Football Teams.” The Huffington Post called Hansen’s commentaries “jaw-dropping.” BuzzFeed called him “badass.”
It was as if old and new media had settled on a single messenger, a guy who likes to say “Boom!” a lot. A Dallas sportscaster looks into his teleprompter. You’ll never believe what happens next.
On February 10, 2014, the day after Michael Sam came out, Hansen declared in an “Unplugged” commentary, “I’m not always comfortable when a man tells me he’s gay. I don’t understand his world. But I do understand that he’s part of mine.”
“I think it was the perfect storm,” Hansen said. “You have the NFL. You have the Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year. You’ve got an old, fat white guy in Dallas talking about gay rights in America. Boom!”
We were sitting in a booth at the Palm steakhouse in downtown Dallas. If you ever doubt the power of a local sportscaster, follow him into a steakhouse and watch how the waiters snap into action. Hansen was wearing a dark blue dress shirt, untucked at the waist, unbuttoned at the cuffs, and showing more of his chest than FCC regulations would allow.
As his popularity grew, Hansen enforced some rules about his “Unplugged” commentaries. He wrote them only when he was moved to, not for sweeps periods. He might read them to his Channel 8 bosses in advance, but he wouldn’t allow a single edit. Any suggestion otherwise and he’d repeat a favorite line: “Read my contract.”
“I have to have lines,” Hansen said. “I probably shouldn’t even admit to this. But I gotta have something to make me go, ‘Ah, that’s pretty good!’”
Lines were what made “Unplugged” into a phenomenon. Hansen learned to deploy them by camping out in Dallas comedy clubs. “He liked Bob Saget, and he was a huge fan of mine,” said Bill Engvall, a pal who starred in The Blue Collar Comedy Tour. “He studied what we do. It’s almost like the camera is his stage. When he comes on, you’re drawn to him. You say, ‘Shut up, I want to hear what Dale’s saying.’”
Hansen’s bomb bay doors opened when NBA commissioner Adam Silver kicked Donald Sterling out of the league: “It’s not the most they could do. It’s the least they could do.” The line would have read well in a column, too. On the Cowboys’ 2008 signing of the oft-arrested Pacman Jones: “If character really doesn’t matter, why don’t they sign Osama bin Laden to play wide receiver? They need one. He’s 6-4 and we know nobody can catch him.”
Hansen’s Greg Hardy “Unplugged” included an old-fashioned scolding of his audience: “Is there no crime you won’t accept? Is there no behavior you won’t tolerate?” But he knew he needed something more vivid to grab viewers, and he dismissed his wife Chris’s worry that the Jim Garrett line was too harsh. “It always has to close,” Hansen explained. “I said, ‘You taught him well, Jim. You taught him well.’” He made the sound of an explosion — in this case, the audience’s heads. “I’m sorry — that’s the whole commentary.”
Still, the line was vicious enough that Hansen sent an email to Troy Aikman, his pal and Garrett’s. He wanted to make sure he and Aikman could have a beer together again.
Another thing that makes Hansen’s commentaries notable is that they’re explicitly liberal. The sports TV people with the desire and capital to say that stuff are Keith Olbermann, Bob Costas, and Hansen, said Or Moyal, who directs sports content on WFAA’s website. Hansen’s angst is boomer angst. “We were going to end discrimination,” Hansen told me. “Feed the homeless. There were going to be no wars like Vietnam. Forty-five years later, we still have wars, people are still hungry, and there’s still discrimination. It hurts like hell when I sit back and think that we didn’t do much.”
“The speeches are well written and passionate and well thought out,” said Mike Fisher, a Dallas writer and radio personality who has been friends with Hansen for 25 years. “But a lot of the speeches Dale has gotten famous for have Dale being against domestic violence, against bullying, and for dads being good parents. Well, yeah …”
Indeed, stripped of the punch lines and the questionable notion that accused domestic abusers should be booted from the NFL forever, a Hansen “Unplugged” can seem like little more than common sense. There are two things to remember here. One, it’s Dallas. “The limb that he’s out on, it’s not exactly a redwood,” said Chuck Cooperstein, the radio play-by-play man for the Mavericks. Second, Hansen, as they say in the NFL, can get to the next level.
In his Pacman Jones commentary, Hansen whacked the “rich, white” Cowboys fan “who talks so passionately about being tough on crime [who] will stand and cheer when Pacman makes a play. But they wouldn’t hire him to work in their company when he needs a job. And if he showed up on their doorstep to pick up their daughter for a night on the town, they would shoot him through the glass.” I think that final sentence is one of the most shocking things ever said on television in Dallas.
In his Hardy “Unplugged” last month, Hansen unfurled the line again, improving it to “shoot his ass through the glass.” “I’m not positive of this,” Hansen said, “but I think I’m the only sportscaster in America who’s ever said ‘they’ll shoot his ass through the glass.’ I mean, I haven’t seen everybody …”
The deluge of praise Hansen got for the Sam commentary was so overwhelming — he counted emails from every state and 27 countries — that he froze up. What could he do to top that? “I didn’t write anything for months,” Hansen said. “A buddy of mine convinced me I gotta keep doing it. Just because Rod Stewart wrote ‘Maggie May’ didn’t mean he stopped.”
Here’s how to understand Dale Hansen: He’s like your local sportscaster, only more so.
In 1983, when Hansen replaced Verne Lundquist at Channel 8, it marked not just a changing of the guard but an aesthetic change for the whole market. Lundquist was affable, college-educated, and had the voice of God. Hansen had no degree and wore his ego on his sleeve. But it soon dawned on even Hansen’s detractors — who were legion — that his egotism was inextricable from his fearlessness. What the city lost in gentility it made up for in aggression and watchability.
“After the Greg Hardy thing, I heard from a couple of media people around here, ‘Ah, Hansen’s just going for shock value,’” said Galloway. “They back off when you throw this at them: How can it be shock value when Dale has been doing this very same thing for 35 years?”
In 1986, Hansen interviewed three members of SMU’s athletic department for a story on recruiting shenanigans. When the school’s recruiting coordinator denied sending a player under-the-table payments, Hansen produced an envelope that had purportedly held such a payment with the recruiter’s initials on it. He later got a package in the mail that contained a dead bird and a note that said, “You’re next.”
“I’m playing amateur psychologist now,” said Brad Sham, the Cowboys’ radio play-by-play man. “But [Hansen] didn’t graduate from college. He came to town not highly heralded. He [didn’t start] at the no. 1 station. I think you kind of always have this feeling like you need to earn your spurs.
“And then once you take a foothold in the business,” Sham continued, “it perhaps empowers you to say some things that maybe others believe and don’t want to say. But you feel, I can say it.”
In 1996, Hansen had been the color man on the Cowboys radio broadcast for 11 years when he started bagging on coach Barry Switzer. Jerry Jones fired Hansen. It’s a testament to Hansen’s influence — or Jones’s Zen detachment — that Jones sloughed off the next 20 years of criticism from Hansen. One year at training camp, Hansen delivered an anti-Cowboys commentary into the camera as Jones stood a few feet away and watched.
When the drubbing was over, Hansen said Jones asked him, “You want to go grab a beer?”
Hansen’s relationship with Mark Cuban is less sanguine. “I have no relationship with Mark Cuban,” Hansen said. “I haven’t talked to him in five or six years. He had said he would not talk to me because I trapped him with my questions. Which I’ve never done, but I was flattered that he thought so.”
Hansen claimed Cuban even dispatched a camera crew to catch Hansen drinking in a bar when he should have been at a game. “That is the biggest bunch of nonsense I ever heard,” Cuban wrote in an email response. As to the media blackout, Cuban wrote, “All he has to do is ask. We can do an interview, or a drink.”
The 1980s and early ’90s were heady times to be a local sports guy. Hansen’s salary climbed to nearly half a million dollars a year. The station gave him a Chevy Caprice and a clothing allowance. He also lived a strangely public life, engaging in on-air banter about his weight — e.g., “I woke up one morning and I was 310 pounds.”
Another key part of Hansen’s mystique was his vivid nightlife. “I’ve got this image of a party boy that just drinks like crazy,” he said.
I reminded him of one Hansen legend from the ’80s: that he’d been camped out in a bar, the veteran of several beers, when he suddenly remembered he had to do the 10 p.m. news.
“Well, that is a true story,” Hansen said.
It happened once or twice? I asked.
“Oh, hell, no. It happened a lot!”
“He’d go, ‘Shit, I’m on in like 12 minutes!’” said Galloway. “We’re all watching the TV thinking, Did he make it? Then they’d say, ‘Here’s Dale Hansen with sports.’ He’d sling through his four minutes — boom, boom, boom — and never a miss a lick.” At the sight of their man on TV, the bar patrons cheered.
At 66, Hansen has settled into a regal period. His partying slowed two decades ago, he said, when he discovered he was the old man in the bar. (A poignant touch: He was holding a blue margarita at the time.) He avoids the temptations that he nukes Cowboys players for indulging. “I don’t smoke marijuana,” he said. “I’d kind of like to smoke it, quite frankly. I think it’d be better than some of the beer I drink. But I know for a fact that if I got caught smoking marijuana, I’d lose my job.”
Among Dallas sports-media types, Hansen’s commentaries have provoked eye-rolling and envy. “Privately, they say, ‘Man, I wish I could do that,’” said Mike Rhyner. “Meaning, I wish I had the elbow room, I wish I had the balls, I wish I had the wherewithal to say what I wanted about stuff. Mainly, I wish I could sit down at the computer and pound that shit out in about 10 minutes.”
Rhyner added, “This is coming from somebody who doesn’t particularly like him, but I have a ton of respect for him.”
In an age when sports TV people troll their audiences with put-on opinions engineered to get on viewers’ nerves, Hansen has attained an odd form of nobility. He actually believes the stuff he says, and the swagger and the ego are all his own. “Rod Stewart comes onstage,” Hansen said, “that son of a bitch is struttin’!”
Bright lights, gentle voices, a blue HD glow — it was time for the 6 p.m. news. “Luckily, you made it just in time to see the greatest sportscast we’ve ever done,” Hansen said to me off-camera with an eye roll.
John McCaa and Shelly Slater were sitting at the Channel 8 anchor desk. Pete Delkus, the meteorologist, sidled to one side of the desk, Hansen to the other. John Sparks, a former WFAA producer, noted how news teams resemble a family portrait: Mom and Dad are the anchors, with the bickering siblings supplying the weather and sports.
On the air, Delkus told a story about how he’d accidentally knocked a ladder onto Slater. “It was an accident, though, right?” Hansen said, returning to a favorite theme. “Because if he did it on purpose, he’d be playing for the Cowboys Tuesday.” Hansen flashed a wide grin to the camera.
Channel 8 has a history of investigative journalism that would make any station proud. But outside of Hansen, its newscasts bend over backward not to offend. I asked McCaa, the anchor, if he would be able to deliver a commentary about a politician like U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas). “That couldn’t happen,” McCaa said. It’s the flipside of the old “stick to sports” line: Sports can be seen as such fluff that it becomes the diplomatic pouch that allows a broadcaster to smuggle political thought into a controversy-free zone.
“I’ve never had anybody say to me, ‘You’re a known liberal-agnostic, and consequently I’m not watching your sportscast,’” Hansen explained. “It starts from the other end. ‘You’re always critical of Jerry Jones, and I happen to like the Dallas Cowboys, you liberal.’”
Hansen began his sportscast at 6:20 p.m. The University of Texas was courting Shaka Smart to be their new basketball coach. Hansen spoke in italics and sentence fragments: “It’s supposed to be a secret. But not much of one. Texas is hoping to intro-duce Smart as their new basketball coach tomorrow …”
He showed some highlights from the Mavericks game the previous night, then threw it to reporter Ted Madden for a report on that night’s Mavs game. The sportscast ended exactly three minutes after it began. Half of Hansen’s nightly work was complete.
How long did it take you to write the script? I asked him.
“It took about two minutes,” Hansen said.
Hansen claimed the hours between the 6 and 10 p.m. newscasts as his own. That night, he pounded out his next script and then shuffled off to a cigar bar next door called the Havana Social Club. The understanding among the Channel 8 staff is that Hansen is not to be bothered unless there’s earth-shaking news. As Hansen likes to say, “Call me if Jerry Jones dies.”
In 2012, Dale Hansen took a pay cut. “I used to do $445,000,” he said. “Now, I do $300,000.” Thirty-two percent! Hansen said the station’s president asked him to announce the news to the press so he could send a cost-saving message to the rest of Channel 8’s anchors.
The cut didn’t reflect a diminution of Hansen’s stature — he still towered over the market — but a shrinking of the job itself. “Local sports is kind of a dying thing,” Hansen said. WFAA’s ratings have followed the downward trajectory of the broadcast networks. In 2009, Hansen announced, with typical bluntness, that he had paid for all of his meals while on assignment at Cowboys training camp rather than billing them to the station.
Local sportscasts have an existential dilemma: If you can get scores and highlights on your phone, what’s the point? “Dale’s belief — and I’m not sure he’s wrong — is that people are not watching a sportscast to get news anymore,” Brad Sham said. Unlike the ’80s, when the late sportscast was the last stop before a dark and scoreless night, nowadays sports — at least, the attendant chatter — never ends. “I’m old enough to remember that people came to me for the scores,” Hansen said. “Then they started coming to me for the highlights. That’s gone now.”
These days, if local news has an MVP, it’s the weatherman. “Bad weather every day of the week in Dallas — that would increase their audience by 30 to 40 percent,” said Ed Bark, a former Dallas Morning News TV critic who now maintains his own blog. A 30-second football highlight feels canned and moldy but a moving, colorful weather map feels urgent and up-to-the-minute.
What local news still has, though, is its own peculiar appeal, which Hansen both worked within and helped create. One of Dallas TV’s Christmastime traditions is a segment Hansen dubbed “Thank God for Kids.” In it, he eulogizes a child who died in the previous year as the titular Oak Ridge Boys song warbles in the background. “Without question, it’s the most-watched sports feature in DFW,” Cooperstein said, “and it’s not even debatable.”
While Hansen was preparing the 2011 edition, he heard a friend argue that if Penn State’s Jerry Sandusky had really molested so many kids, why didn’t the kids speak up? Hansen got an idea. He would deliver a commentary on “Thank God for Kids.” To the question of whether Channel 8 viewers knew anyone who’d been molested as a child, Hansen wrote one of his most powerful lines: “You might not think you do, but I know you do” — and here he choked up — “because you all know me.”
Hansen was 10 years old, he said with wet eyes. A 16-year-old boy took him to a baseball diamond and succeeded in pinning him and pulling his pants down. “I know exactly where it was,” Hansen said, “but then it was only 53 years ago.” Hansen felt helpless, trapped, but the boy mysteriously let him go. He hadn’t told anybody, just like many of Sandusky’s victims.
“Some people said, ‘As long as it’s all about you …’” Hansen told me. “Well, it is Dale Hansen’s ‘Unplugged.’ It is about me.” His mind drifted to the line he’d written. “There’s that line in that commentary — god, I love that line …”
The Hansen content mix — liberal smackdowns, brave confessionals, kids in peril — may sound strangely familiar. That’s because it’s exactly the kind of sharable content that populates the “soft” sections of sites like BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post, and Upworthy. Not coincidentally, those are the sites that discovered Hansen, aggregated him as they would Jon Stewart or John Oliver, and delivered him to a new audience.
A land bridge had formed between old and new media. What Hansen offered the web was gravitas and gray hair. His friend Mike Fisher noted that some measure of Hansen’s fame is based on a mistaken impression that he’s a former tea partier rather than a liberal whose heart has bled since the ’60s. Hansen also has a knack for taking a position that just about every lefty agrees with and stating its case in pithy, local-news style — like Stewart with less sarcasm. “He says what people are thinking, but it’s much more eloquent and gets to the point quicker,” said George Riba, a former Channel 8 sports reporter.
The irony of the Internet’s embrace of Hansen is that Hansen is willfully ignorant of digital media. He still uses a flip phone. According to Channel 8 sports director Sean Hamilton, in the late ’90s Hansen complained that he was no longer getting letters in the mail from viewers. Hamilton informed Hansen that he had a public email account. When Hansen checked it, it contained 1,000 unread messages.
The Michael Sam commentary quintupled that total before Hansen stopped counting. Many of those who wrote in said they saw “Dallas anchor” and “Michael Sam” in the website headlines and assumed it was an anti-gay rant. “Everybody — everybody — said, ‘I was prepared for the worst. I heard it was an older gentleman in Dallas.’ As I said, we’re not all crazy in Texas. We just elect them to higher office.”
“I enjoy the hell out of it …” Hansen said of his new fan mail. “Pakistan. Hong Kong. Australia.” Australia? Indeed, one of Hansen’s new correspondents was a woman who’d logged on and seen a Texan speaking in a way that seemed to transcend borders. “Dale,” the Australian wrote, “I want to meet you and work together some day …”
At 9:43 p.m., Hansen walked from the bar back to the Channel 8 studio to do the sportscast. “Let’s see how primed he is,” said Delkus, the weatherman. Hansen was no worse for the wear. He’d met a group of car dealers from San Antonio at the bar. He performed an old trick — telling them to watch the TV because he’d be on it in a few minutes. The men were stunned.
His performance — three and a half minutes, again to the second — was vintage Hansen. He blasted Alabama’s Nick Saban for giving an accused domestic abuser another chance and then releasing the player after a second incident, even though the accusation had been recanted. “The hypocrisy about second chances and the argument we all make mistakes …” he said.
The Channel 8 chyron said it was 10:28 p.m. The two anchors were still at the desk, awaiting the final segment, when Hansen unhooked his microphone, strode back out the studio doors, and returned to the bar.
“He’s the last of a breed,” said Bark, the former Morning News TV critic. “Once he goes, there won’t be anybody that will have the freedom to do what he does.” The way the digital frontier has absorbed Hansen’s voice feels oddly profound: a local sportscaster being celebrated via a medium he barely understands but whose passions and rhythms he knows better than just about anyone. Boom!
When Hansen got to the bar, he spread his arms wide and asked the car salesmen, “How’d I do, boys?”
Hansen’s new fans rose to their feet and began to cheer.