Dallas-icon Dale Hansen reflects on his 34 years of reporting sports at WFAA
Even as a kid, the bright lights beaming onto a stage and the eyes of an audience never made Dale nervous. Excited, sure, but never frightened. During one school theater production, Dale played an escapee from an insane asylum, something his close friends might find ironic. Right before his cue to go on stage where he was supposed to attack the female lead and her male counterpart—played by Dale’s best buddy Keith—the buckles on one of his large galoshes got caught on the set partition. He jerked his foot in order to free himself, and in doing so the set came crashing down. The audience was shocked. His friends on stage stood frozen, mouths agape.
But Dale stayed calm and delivered an ad-libbed line, “I’m telling you, these prefab homes are not going to last. They’re just not going to work!” The audience howled, while Keith and Dale continued to banter until they got back on track with the script. His teacher came up to him afterwards in complete awe and said, “Never have I had a kid destroy my play and save it in the same night.”
One could say that play foreshadowed Dale Hansen’s career; a string of failures that made him one of the most beloved sportscasters in Dallas.
“An old buddy of mine once told me, ‘You ever notice how lucky the really good players are?’ It’s amazing how lucky you can be sometimes, if you work hard and develop your craft,” Dale says to me with his distinctive delivery, emphasizing words at a Frank Underwood pace, but without the Southern accent. “I get fired in Omaha, Nebraska. I come to Dallas, and I get hired at Channel 4. Then I get fired. I come to Channel 8, Marty Haag asked the same questions [everyone always does] about where I went to school and said [WFAA doesn’t] hire people without a college degree. I say to the great Marty Haag, ‘I wish I went to college, but you’re talking to me because you saw me on the air at Channel 4. I really don’t think Bob and Martha are going to stop watching if they figure out I didn’t go to college 15 years ago.’ He started laughing…on we go.”
I’m sitting with Dale in his office at the WFAA station in downtown Dallas where he’s worked for 34 years. Photographs of grandchildren in “I ♥ U” frames, another of two dogs and a photo of him riding an elephant are among the 15 or so that occupy most of the space on his desk. Among them sits a pillow stitched with, “I only go golfing on days that end in y.” On the opposite wall, hangs a poster of Troy Aikman. It’s not a large office, which doesn’t really matter because why would he need the space? Between tapings of the nightly news, he’s generally hanging out at the Havana Club puffing on a cigar with some friends, and it takes him no more than 10 to 15 minutes to write his Sports in 60 Seconds script. (It’s true, I witnessed it myself.) His contract also specifically states that his duties are to show up on time for the newscast and to perform, which leaves plenty of time for golfing, card playing and cigar smoking.
“You like sports?”
Before getting into TV, Dale wanted to be a radio disc jockey. After high school he bounced around a few odd jobs, but then two seemingly small events inspired him to pursue his dream. One day Dale ran into the very same English teacher whose play he nearly ruined, and that teacher encouraged Dale to get into radio. That same night he saw a commercial for a trade school on TV that said if you had the right voice you could make millions of dollars in broadcasting. He signed up and before he finished the program, a station in Newton, Iowa hired him.
“I was earning $94 a week, and I thought it was the best thing ever,” Dale says. “About three weeks later I realized it was the worst job on the planet!” He loved talking on the radio and cracking jokes, but repeating the same records hour after hour was mind numbing.
A month went by, and out of nowhere the news director of the station quit. Dale was offered the job. “I thought, ‘Oh, what the heck.’ I didn’t like it, I loved it! It was about four years of just fun. This town had so much going on, and I broke a ton of stories,” Dale says. He did such great work he was awarded Associated Press’ Iowa Investigative Reporter of the Year.
After leaving Newton, Dale had some shaky times. He was transferred from Knoxville, Iowa to St. Cloud, Minnesota, where he hated every minute of the 11 months he lived there (because of the cold and getting a divorce, but mostly the cold), and everyone knew it. Then he got a radio job in Omaha, Nebraska, but was fired not long after.
“Some [of the reasons I got fired] were legitimate. I didn’t tolerate fools. I hated the moronic people I was working for, and I wasn’t afraid to tell them so,” Dale laughs. After being fired, he couldn’t find any radio jobs, so he decided to interview at a television station.
“The producer asked where I went to school and I told him, ‘Logan, Iowa.’ And he said that was the end of this conversation,” Dale explains, “and as I’m sitting there the phone rings. His weekend sportscaster quit—totally unexpected. In almost pure frustration he looks at me and asks, ‘You like sports?’ ‘Oh hell, I love sports!’ Which I didn’t. I mean, I liked sports. He asked, ‘How would you like to audition for the weekend sportscaster job?’ And I said, ‘Well you said everyone who works here has to have a college degree?’ ‘Not to be a sportscaster, you don’t need the education at all,’ he replied, I kid you not.”
Dale nailed the audition, cut off his thick, permed hair and mutton chops, and bought a new suit. “I was looking like a Dillard’s ad! I’d pay money to get that hair back now,” Dale laughs. A few months later he was promoted to be the main sportscaster, and then fired, again, which might have been one of the best things to ever happen to him.
“Do you want to die in Dallas? Because I’m going to.”
After leaving Nebraska, Dale had two requirements for the next city he would live in: it had to be a major league city, and it had to be warm. When he touched down at DFW, Dale just knew. “I fell in love with Dallas after stepping off the plane. I called my then girlfriend, who is now my wife of 35 years, and I asked, ‘Do you want to die in Dallas? Because I’m going to.’ I love the golf courses. I love the airport; you can go anywhere in two and a half hours.”
A short stint on Channel 4 finally put Dale at Channel 8 which would become his longtime home. He even turned down a job as a main anchor at a fairly new sports channel called ESPN. “My son who was 12 at the time said, ‘You turned down ESPN?!’ I didn’t see the potential and had no desire to act like I cared if the Giants were playing Washington. Channel 8 took me off the street, and believe it or not, I have a certain professional moral code I’m actually quite proud of; not much of a moral code, but a professional standard,” Dale chuckles.
In his early days at WFAA, he made a name for himself by being the first to cover high school sports. No one else was going after high school teams, and other sports reporters laughed at him.
“Growing up in a small town, it always kind of offended me [that those towns] didn’t get any news coverage. I think kids in Waxahachie, Red Oak and Midlothian are entitled to just as much coverage as kids in Allen and Plano. I try real hard to do exactly that. It was a conscious thought of mine 20 years ago that that was how I was going to do [sports reporting]. They would never mention Logan, Iowa… You should at least be able to throw in a score. But I figured it would work, because people watch other people. If a kid’s on camera his parents will watch, and his grandparents, half the school, the coaches… It’s slow, but you keep going down that line.”
Today most channels have an entire show dedicated only to high school sports, and recruiting high school athletes has become a huge business. “I…I almost feel somewhat responsible for that,” Dale admits. “It’s unfortunate what it’s become in many ways… Now it’s like, who can one-up the next kid?”
While high school sports have a special place in Dale’s heart and sports agenda, his life-defining moments are, without a doubt, SMU and Michael Sam.
“Like attacking the Catholic Church in Boston”
On November 12, 1986, Dale and his team aired a 40-minute post-news special that would take down SMU football. The piece exposed how SMU boosters paid players obscene amounts of money and that administrators, from the coaches to the board members, knew about it. At the time, SMU was a top 10 team, located deep in the heart of football country with many powerful and wealthy allies.
“It was like attacking the Catholic Church in Boston,” Dale explains. “Other reporters in other towns wouldn’t have gone for [the story], but the sportscasters [in Dallas] aren’t cheerleaders—most of us aren’t.” There was push back from WFAA management; some had ties to SMU but most of it was to make sure the story was airtight. Right before the piece went live, Dale’s producer had him call Henry Lee Parker, the administrative assistant to SMU’s athletic director, for the sixth time to confirm he didn’t want to change his story.
“[My team and I] said if [management] killed this story, we would all walk out. So, I called one more time and told [Henry] we’re about to air the piece, I’m giving you one more opportunity to change your story and he said, ‘No, I told you the truth.’ And that’s where [SMU’s lies] began to unravel. But thank God we didn’t have to prove that we’d walk out. I’m pretty sure we would have—but I guess we’ll never know.”
SMU’s football program received the first, and what Dale thinks will be the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s (NCAA) last “death penalty” for a football team. The death penalty—the NCAA’s harshest punishment—bans a team from competing for at least one year.
“I didn’t think some 25 years later, SMU would still be struggling to win three games in a single season,” Dale says, “and neither did the NCAA. I knew they would use [the death penalty] in [the SMU] case…it’s not my fault SMU [cheated]. The NCAA had other opportunities to give the death penalty, but I doubt they’ll ever give it again. I think they should, it’s a hell of a deterrent. If teams cheat and continue to cheat, what else can you do? The coaches need to be banned. Most can just move onto the next job especially if they get out beforehand. If they want to clean up college sports, then really clean it up.”
“All bets are off”
Dale’s other defining moment was his commentary on Michael Sam, the first openly gay professional football player. Nearly everyone’s seen the video; it even got him invited onto The Ellen Degeneres Show. While writing the commentary, Dale had no idea the kind of impact it would have. Once again by happenstance, the station was short a sports reporter that night. Dale needed to fill two minutes, so his producer suggested talking about Michael Sam. He thought about Michael’s story the night before at home, thought about it in the car ride to work, wrote the script in about 12 minutes and decided to get some feedback before going on air.
“I call one of my conservative guys, read it to him, and he says, ‘Yeah, I think that’s okay,’” Dale says and then raises an eyebrow. “Just okay, huh? So then I got this liberal, black photographer to read it. He says, ‘Yeah, that’ll work.’ ‘It’ll work?’ I thought it was better than that. Between shows I’m having a cigar with two of my liberal guys, and I kind of give them the high points…both think that ‘it’s pretty nice’ and ‘will go over well’. I swear to God, I hit the air thinking [the commentary] is nice, outta work, it’s okay. I read it on air and one of my friends on the floor crew—liberal guy, as I am—he asks, ‘So what do you think the response to that one is going to be?’ I thought I’d get 100 emails; 50 telling me how brilliant I really am and another 50 telling me to go to hell and burn for all of eternity.”
When Dale got home he already had 100 emails in his inbox; the next day when he got to work he had around 500. He couldn’t figure out how so many people, from Dallas to California, could have seen the video via word of mouth. It wasn’t until later that day when news anchor Shelly Slater explained to him that his commentary had gone viral. Eventually he received 6,000 emails, sent from every state in the U.S. and 27 other countries. Dale being Dale, with his strict professional moral code, answered every single one.
“It took months, but I answer every email I receive. It might be a simple, ‘Thanks for writing. Dale.’ Or if warranted, ‘Go to hell. Dale.’ But I always sign my name. About half the time I swing my critics to my side. I’ll debate them back and forth, but I shut down trolls,” Dale says.
Since then, in his segment, Dale Hansen Unplugged, he’s tackled his own abuse as a child, racist signs at a Lewisville High School pep-rally, the Baylor sexual abuse cover-up (multiple times) and even his daughter’s rape. Dale’s always considered himself a “flaming liberal of the ‘60s” and even got in trouble with the station in the mid-80s for quoting Bobby Kennedy, but now times have changed.
“Basically over the last few years I said, ‘Oh hell, all bets are off.’ But I’ll be honest, I’m a little bit surprised…a lot of my conservative friends will tell me—and it’s kind of flattering—they say, ‘We disagree with everything you say, but you say it really well. You make it really hard to argue with you, but I know you’re wrong,’” Dale laughs.
“Just trying to make you think”
Dale can almost pinpoint the day he changed from a boy raised to be racist to a liberal. “I went to the Navy and got my first welcome to the world. I got my eyes opened up, and I’ve been a screaming liberal since 1967. Here I am, this flaming liberal in this ridiculously red state…somehow I’ve carved out a niche. Although some people probably don’t appreciate my liberalism, I think I deliver it rather convincingly. At the end of the day, I’m just trying to make you think.”
It took Dale time to go public with so many personal and controversial stories, but he’s reached a point in his life where he’s done hiding. He wanted to talk about his sexual abuse as a kid publicly for years, but never had an occasion where it didn’t seem self-serving, until the Penn State abuse scandal.
“After [the commentary about my abuse] aired I felt sick. Two of my best buddies from my hometown were raped by the same person. We all grew up together, played ball together, stayed at each other’s houses and vacationed together. None of us told each other,” Dale says. “[The rape] didn’t affect me because I blocked it out, you know? I was so embarrassed and humiliated. I knew my dad would kill him—oh God. I couldn’t deal with the shame, but I’ve always had a pretty healthy outlook. I live by this Persian proverb, ‘I complained because I had no shoes, but then I saw a man who had no feet.’”
That mindset is what makes Dale such a unique sportscaster because he doesn’t sweat the small stuff, like winning or perfection. Playing sports in high school, he’d be crushed after a loss. “Then I started to realize that I’ll probably get to play another game. Oh sure, I lost my last basketball game in high school…okay well, everybody does. I realized that none of this stuff really matters, and eventually we all die.”
The closest thing to Dale’s favorite sports team is the Cowboys of the early-90s and Nebraska football. In 1984, Nebraska lost the National Championship by one point. His son started to bawl, absolutely devastated, but Dale wasn’t. “I looked at him and said, ‘That might have been the greatest college football game I’ve ever seen!’ Everybody started calling me, saying I must be mad. Mad? About what? It’s a football game…a football game. I wish Nebraska had won, but I understand why [Nebraska] didn’t kick the extra point to tie the game. And I didn’t care. When the Rangers lost in the World Series, everyone there was angry and screaming and bitching and cussing and complaining. I’m thinking that it was an unbelievable baseball game!”
Where that coolness comes from, Dale’s not quite sure, but part of it has come from maturing over the years. “I would get frustrated when people didn’t love the job as much as I do, when they wouldn’t demand perfection from themselves… I used to be ridiculously obsessed with perfection, but now I move on because nobody dies if I mess up a phrase.”
“There’s no better drug”
Dale is turning 69 this fall and says he’ll be at WFAA until he falls over dead. Personally, I wouldn’t bet against him. He is cutting back on his schedule (which some people aren’t sure is possible), but a one-year extension is in the works and retirement is far off in the distance. His general manager recently asked him, “What would you do [if you retired]? Sit around and play cards, play golf and argue sports at night? Hell, you do that now, and we’ll pay you.”
“My dad worked right up until the end—lived to be 88 and worked into his 80s. I really think it keeps you sharp,” Dale says. “I’ve looked at this process, and it seems to me when people lose contact with the world they kind of just start shutting down.”
Sports reporting is evolving to no longer being about scores, stats and highlights, which are available at your fingertips thanks to technology. There needs to be more with it, which is right in Dale’s wheelhouse.
“Nightly commentary really drives me now, that’s what I’ve been doing for 30 years. The Michael Sam and the rape commentary, my own abuse… There’s no drug that can make me feel better than when I’m talking about something I care about and the impact. If and when I should lose that, then I’ll know it’s time to quit, but I haven’t remotely lost that. When that red light goes on, it’s an absolute rush. And when I say something that’s either funny or a commentary that touches somebody, there isn’t anything better than that. When I came to Channel 8 it hit me: I had arrived at my final destination. I quickly realized I’m the luckiest man in the world.”
You ever notice how lucky the good players are?