I remember a time when I liked Chris Berman. I was 14 and, like a lot of Midwestern guys, deeply into sports. That meant watching ESPN, which seemed to always feature the jovial, chubby-cheeked host, who enjoyed livening up his recap of highlights with funny voices, shouted catchphrases (“back-back-back-back” while describing a baseball heading to the bleachers) and a seemingly endless array of pun-y nicknames for players, such as Harold “Growing” Baines and Andre “Bad Moon” Rison.
Teenage me loved it: He was part entertainer, part jokester, part fun-loving older brother. Where other sportscasters were straight-laced and stuffy, he acted like a stand-up comic or a late-night host. My dad couldn’t stand the guy, which I considered a failing of my father’s. He thought Berman was all shtick—a lame “personality” who put himself above the sports he was reporting. I felt bad for my dad, who was clearly too old to get what was so brilliant about Berman.
I’m now the age my dad was back then, and I have to say: Dad, I’m sorry, you were right all along.
Last year, ESPN announced that Berman would be stepping away from many of his primo gigs at the network, including hosting Sunday NFL Countdown, although he isn’t going away completely. (According to ESPN, he’ll still be involved in things like the ESPYs and pop up on Monday Night Countdown to “offer opinion and perspective on historical events in the NFL.”) Nonetheless, this semi-retirement has inspired puff pieces full of fawning quotes from colleagues about Berman’s legacy—as well as angry takedowns about the guy being an overrated hack. I see both sides—my younger self loved him, but my older, hopefully wiser self has long since outgrown the schmuck.
I’m guessing this change of heart happened for a lot of people my age. After all, the key to Berman’s limited appeal is the fact that, even at 61, he’s still a big, dumb kid. As fellow ESPN commentator Steve Young recently told Sports Illustrated, “Chris Berman is relentlessly himself… He loves football. He loves sports. People can treat that as Pollyanna stuff, but fine. Sports should be fun. That’s why people watch it.”
As a teen, I responded to Berman’s goofy, cartoon-y exuberance. I still remember reading his 1990 SI profile, the one that cemented his persona as a giddy, caveman-ish modern-day reincarnation of Fred Flintstone by depicting him as the beloved Hanna-Barbera patriarch. “Fred’s been my idol since I was 2 1/2 years old,” Berman told the magazine, adding, “I loved the guy then, and I still do. He’s brilliant, a genius. Best of all, he’s always himself. He can’t help it.”
Berman’s every-guy demeanor was very attractive—he seemed like a dude you’d want to watch a game with. He constantly peddled sports’ superficial, electrifying entertainment value, which is why he was perfect for ESPN. Joining the network soon after its launch in 1979, Berman was the happy, irreverent face of the upstart cable company. He was a showman on a network that wanted to infuse sports with personality and flavor. Berman’s nicknames and catchphrases were all part of the joke—and the fact that my dad didn’t like it was entirely the point. Somebody like Berman was meant to trash the old order of how sports were “supposed” to be covered.
But as entertaining as a guy like Berman can be, it’s probably crucial to one’s emotional maturity to eventually see through his boring act. I still love sports, but I now see them through other perspectives: class, race, economics, business. They’re still fun to watch, but they’re not just fun-and-games for me now. A guy like Berman never had the gravitas to appeal to that older, wiser perspective: The cartoon was all he was ever selling.
Consequently, for me he stopped being the lovable jokester bellowing “Duu Raaaadaaas”—he instead became the doofus who let his persona overshadow everything he reported. I’ve never watched the Home Run Derby because I know Berman is all over the damn thing. I never watch any of ESPN’s NFL shows because I know I’ll see him. Like a lot of comics, the worst thing that ever happened to Berman was his deciding that he was funny. In that way, he also embodied what became of ESPN—going from plucky up-and-comer to the loudest, dumbest, most tiresome thing around, inspiring the even-worse FS1 to try to outdo the network in terms of sheer outrageous idiocy. Good god, what had I seen in a moron like Berman?
I’m sure plenty of adults find Berman hilarious—plus, he’s been such a fixture on ESPN that, for a lot of sports fans, he’s practically part of the family. I don’t regret my youthful infatuation with the guy, but I am grateful I got to an age where I was old enough to appreciate what my dad had tried to tell me all those years ago.
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.