Phil Chenier
Phil Chenier Credit: Keith Allison on Flickr / CC 2.0
Phil Chenier Credit: Keith Allison on Flickr / CC 2.0

Dan Snyder has made a lot of unpopular decisions while running the local football team. He’s fired popular coaches and successful general managers, sued elderly women and beloved alternative-weekly sports columnists. You know the litany. (If you don’t, we keep a permanent link to the great Dave McKenna’s exhaustive list on the City Paper homepage.)

Many of those things—maybe most—wind up getting forgiven or forgotten when the next big splash happens. But the one that seems to still get people riled up, especially older fans of a certain stripe, is the 2004 replacement of 20+ year radio play-by-play man Frank Herzog with Chief Content Officer/Senior VP Larry Michael, who still holds the gig to this day. There are different sides to the story, but the details don’t matter—at least to that certain group of fans. Their radio crew was Frank, Sonny, and Sam, and anything that changed that was for the worse.

Perhaps that isn’t Snyder’s only sin, but it has definitely become one of the more unforgivable ones. Now Ted Leonsis appears to be repeating it.

Phil Chenier has been the primary color analyst for Bullets/Wizards games for 33 years, a term that now appears to be coming to an end. The folks at Monumental Sports & Entertainment, including Wizards (and Capitals) owner Leonsis, are going out of their way to assure everyone that Chenier will be involved with the broadcast and the team in a variety of roles. But the job he has held for more than three decades—that is, sitting next to a play-by-play guy and patiently analyzing and explaining another dreadful Washington basketball season—is ending, just as the dreadfulness seems to be ending as well.

The Washington Post reports that CSN executives are seeking “a fresh voice” to replace Chenier. There are two problems with this. 

One is that, to me, “a fresh voice” immediately equates to someone like Poochie in The Simpsons—to CSN sticking some backward-hat-and-baggy-shorts-wearing Guy Fieri knockoff in the analyst chair to bring in the hip young kids who are missing the broadcasts with their internetting and extreme sports. 

Second is that no one who cares about a broadcasting crew ever wants a fresh voice. Sports fans talk more about tradition than the cast of a roadshow production of Fiddler on the Roof does, and that tendency is magnified when it comes to team broadcasters. Even hated broadcasters are irreplaceable in their own way. I wouldn’t have anything to tweet about if Caps radio broadcasts suddenly became comprehensible.

There was a meme that made the rounds on social media a few months back—a picture of a kid sitting and eating ice cream next to an ice cream ad showing three pretty young women also eating ice cream, which someone had captioned: “how it feels to listen to podcasts.” It was a pretty terrific analogy, and it also applies to sports broadcasts and broadcasters.    

These are people we let into our life on a regular basis, even if just as voices—the audible manifestations of the voices that rattle around in our heads. It’s easy to spend upwards of 150 hours each season listening to a basketball broadcasting team and countless, endless hours more with a baseball crew. 

To ownership and management, they may seem like fungible cogs in the machine of big-time sports. Everyone is, after all—from league MVPs to fan-favorite coaches. But the relationship between fanbase and broadcaster can be even closer than the one between fans and a star player. In general, broadcasters stick around longer, and we rarely hear star players speak outside of the most banal clichés.

The Wizards, it could be argued, have only enhanced this relationship. Their radio broadcast is a lively, borderline participatory affair. The crew calls itself the “Radio Party.” Their official hashtag is #DCFamily. They exude unity and camaraderie in everything they do—a smart way of making a positive (closeness! trust!) out of a potential negative (those fans who have stuck with the team since its heyday are now proudly unified in their #SoWizards misery).

Which makes this all the more striking of a decision. The fans have tried all the usual, impotent measures to prevent the change from taking place: a petition, angry tweets, etc. But I don’t think anyone seriously believes these efforts will work. Leonsis and Monumental and CSN are assuming that this movement will eventually fade, like the fallout from most missteps and hard decisions often does, with the passage of time and (they’re likely hoping) the glow of a decent postseason run.

But I suspect that they’re very wrong. I suspect that Leonsis will find, as Snyder did before him, that this is one of sports’ unforgivable sins.