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The Play-by-Play Pioneer Hiding in Plain Sight

For decades, Charlie Neal has been the voice of football for historically Black colleges and universities, an NBA studio host, and one of the architects of modern sports media. He deserves to be better known and celebrated. Let’s start now.

Adam Villacin

On March 12, the before times went into OT. The NBA had already paused its season; major colleges were canceling their tournaments. But at 2 p.m., the Morgan State and Delaware State women’s basketball teams played a game in Norfolk, Virginia. A 75-year-old announcer named Charlie Neal sat at mid-court.

Neal was an obvious choice to handle play-by-play. “Without a doubt, he has done more Black college football games and basketball games than anybody in the history of mankind,” said Ed Hill, the longtime sports information director at Howard University. Neal’s voice is big and rich but lacks the self-admiring quality of a lot of announcers’ voices. As Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference commissioner Dennis Thomas told me, “Radio, TV, reading the church obituary—hell, he’s just got the voice.”

Neal called Morgan State’s one-point victory as sports leagues across the country went into quarantine. It wasn’t until afterward that Neal realized he’d earned a strange honor. He’d announced the last college basketball game before the sports stoppage. “We were the only thing going on,” said Neal. It wasn’t the first time he’d worked alone.

Forty years ago this fall, Charlie Neal began calling college football games on BET. He did two extraordinary things. Neal made BET into a showcase for historically Black colleges and universities that were all but banished from network TV. What ABC’s Keith Jackson did for Michigan every Saturday—a combination of play-by-play and brand management—Neal did for Howard and Grambling State.

In 1980, Neal worked in an industry that hired Black announcers as analysts but rarely hired them to do play-by-play. Neal’s BET games, then, carried a message: that preventing a Black announcer from being the quarterback of a broadcast was as wrong as preventing him from being the quarterback on the field. “Charlie Neal, during the heyday of Black college sports on television, was our Al Michaels,” said James Verrett, who calls games on the ESPN platforms and other networks. “He was our Howard Cosell.”

Like Cosell, Neal had an announcerly aura. Neal’s TV colleagues knew he’d arrived at a studio when they heard his Harley revving outside. When teleprompters were introduced, Neal at first ignored them, preferring to recite lines from memory.

Young announcers have always strung together multiple gigs, but Neal took the conceit further. In the ’70s, he worked his on-air shifts at a Washington, D.C., R&B station in a bus driver’s uniform, then drove a charter after the show. One time, he dropped off Isaac Hayes and his band at a concert venue, came back to deliver 11 p.m. news, and then picked up Hayes after the concert. “I’ve always believed you need to have something else that you can fall back on,” said Neal. “If Plan A doesn’t work, I’ll go to Plan B.”

In 1971, Neal got a job at Washington’s Channel 4 and became part of the first generation of Black local TV anchors. He later worked at stations in Philadelphia and Detroit. “We felt like we were on display because we were Black,” said Curtis Gadson, who worked with Neal in Detroit and later became an executive at BET. “So we had to make sure that everything was just stellar, and that’s what we did.”

In the summer of 1980, a Washington businessman named Bob Johnson invited Neal to a meeting. That year, Johnson had launched Black Entertainment Television with a characteristic flourish: He borrowed a prospectus for a cable station for the elderly and substituted “Black” for “elderly.” Johnson wanted to fill BET’s schedule with programming the major networks had overlooked. Over time, that vision would include Tavis Smiley’s nightly talk show, the Bobby Jones gospel hour, Video Soul, and Black college football. “Grambling was like our Notre Dame,” Johnson told me.

“Charlie had all of the ingredients of a sports announcer,” said Johnson. “He had the style, he had the language, he had the knowledge.” Johnson hired Neal as BET’s first play-by-play announcer. For an analyst, Neal picked Lem Barney, the Lions’ Hall of Fame cornerback, who’d played college ball at Jackson State, an HBCU.

On TV, college football is often presented as a parallel universe of professional sports. For those who didn’t know about HBCUs, BET offered full access to the multiverse: a place where Grambling’s Eddie Robinson was the best coach, where the Bayou Classic was the game to watch, and where no band topped Florida A&M’s Marching 100.

Neal was a just-the-facts type of announcer. “Tell the people what’s going on,” he said. “Get in, get out.” Barney offered sly comic relief. One time, Neal and Barney were calling a game when a running back knocked down a referee. “Good spare,” said Barney. Another time, Neal noted that a player was raised in a flyspeck town in Texas. “I know exactly where it is,” said Barney. “Next to a service station.”

During games, Barney made Neal laugh so hard that tears would roll down his cheeks. He’d find himself unable to speak as the quarterback came under center. “My partner is having technical difficulties with his mic right now,” Barney would tell the audience.

Neal and Barney were partners on BET for 23 years, two years longer than Pat Summerall and John Madden. They achieved TV nirvana: They became the audience’s friends. “When I started doing games with him and Lem, I thought I was going to be the cult hero,” said Doug Williams, the Super Bowl–winning quarterback who joined the booth in 1990. “Then I found out the cult hero was Charlie Neal.”

“He was Mr. It on the Black college circuit,” said CBS’s James Brown, who worked with Neal at BET. “I mean, he was royalty.” When Neal and Barney arrived in Orangeburg, South Carolina, or Itta Bena, Mississippi, it was like the Rat Pack was striding through the concourse. Fans sent platters of food up to the booth. They paid social calls, never mind that Neal and Barney were calling a game.

Once, at a game in Jackson, Mississippi, Neal and Barney turned to find a full-faced man standing between them. “We’re like, ‘Who’s this brother here, leaning over my shoulder?’” said Neal. It was Biz Markie, whose videos were running nonstop on BET. Neal had no idea who he was.

Another time, in Indianapolis, one of the organizers of the Circle City Classic brought Flavor Flav to the booth for an interview. Before they went on air, Neal gently told Flav he wasn’t familiar with his work.

“You know me, boyyyyy,” said Flav.

“Oh!” said Neal. “Now I know who you are.”

By the ’90s, the music videos BET showed were becoming mainstream. But HBCU football got relatively little notice in newspapers or on TV. As Neal’s friend Greg Morrison told me: “I can remember watching ESPN many a Sunday morning and saying, ‘OK, they got all these scores. Where are the HBCU scores?’”

Now, here came Neal with a booming game call and a mayoral body of knowledge: of coaches like Marino “The Godfather” Casem and players like Willie “Satellite” Totten and each school’s particular alumni roll call.

“Who else will tell our stories?” said Morrison. “Who else will talk about and understand the legacy of these schools?”

“When you’re that voice, expressing their triumphs and sometimes their tragedies and shortcomings, it is like having that relative who will stand up and speak for you when no one else will.”

Neal’s slightly elongated ID (“Charlie Neeeal”) welcomed viewers to some of the best college football games anywhere. In 1984, Neal and Barney were in the booth when Jerry Rice’s Mississippi Valley State team put 63 points on Southern, completing a wild second-half comeback. A year later, they were in Dallas when Eddie Robinson broke Bear Bryant’s all-time wins record. “Later on, I’ll cry for the man whose grandfather was a sharecropper,” Robinson said afterward, “and who’s amazed that so much attention should come his way.”

In 1993, Neal called a game between undefeateds Howard and North Carolina A&T while former Aggie quarterback Jesse Jackson paced nervously around the press box. Neal was one of the first TV announcers to say Steve McNair’s name on the air.

There’s a reason you didn’t see Neal’s games replayed during the sports-less days of the pandemic. BET didn’t do a good job archiving the tapes, Neal said. But if you find a game on YouTube, it’s likely to be a perfect time capsule. During the 1993 Heritage Bowl, Neal pointed out that Florida A&M’s offensive tackle had committed a false start. The tackle was Kwame Kilpatrick, the future mayor of Detroit.

Neal and Barney brought a glow to campuses that players from Michigan and Alabama took for granted. “You watched the major schools on Saturdays playing on television, players getting their name called,” said Totten, the quarterback of the ’84 Mississippi Valley State team. “Then you had an opportunity to showcase your talent the same way.”

Players told their parents they could finally catch their game on TV. “Everyone was coming out looking a little bit sweeter,” said Jay Walker, a former Howard quarterback who’s now a member of the Maryland House of Delegates. “The uniform was going to be tight. You had to make sure your gloves and your towels and everything were matching.”

BET was always racing to keep up with its network competitors. It had to negotiate with the HBCUs directly to buy TV rights. “Early on, some of them—I don’t blame them—they had dollar signs in their eyes,” said Johnson. Using a similar pitch to the one he would later make to comedians for ComicView, Johnson offered HBCUs a tiny sum while talking up the benefits of BET’s platform. “We could give you something you don’t have, which is coverage,” said Johnson. “Which could help you recruit.”

In the ’80s, BET had the air of a startup. For a time, it showed games a week later on tape delay. It used half as many cameras to a shoot game as a network like ABC did. While network announcers were prepped by a squadron of broadcast associates, Neal pestered sports information directors himself. “It was like being a detective trying to solve a murder,” he said.

And Neal was still stringing together multiple jobs. He hosted the Miss Black America pageant; he called college sports for CBS; he handled the NBA studio for Turner (“I was Ernie Johnson back then”). In 1985, Johnson made Neal BET’s executive producer of sports. He was the only national announcer who also put together the football schedule.

“The one thing I think BET had over all the other networks—and which was big when it came to HBCUs—was the halftime shows,” said Neal. ABC didn’t have music rights. It might show a 20-second snippet of halftime. BET had the rights to everything. It showed bands like the Marching 100 playing their entire halftime performance, squeezing a mini concert film into a football game.

One of Johnson’s heady visions for BET was to create a “Black Algonquin Round Table.” Neal got pretty close every Saturday. On his studio show The Budweiser Sports Report, Neal convened a murderers’ row of journalists: Michael Wilbon, Ralph Wiley, Bryan Burwell, William Rhoden, David Aldridge, David DuPree, Roscoe Nance.

The writers had made it to the summit of print. Neal was offering the currency of new media: TV reps. “Back then, we had to have on a different face and a different way of speaking a lot of times when we were with a fully integrated audience,” said DuPree, who wrote for USA Today.

“But if you went on with Charlie, you were just your regular self. Because you knew who was watching.”

“I don’t know that producers from the quote-unquote mainstream networks were watching,” said Wilbon. “But locker rooms were watching.” When Wilbon covered an NFL game, he found players had seen him on the Sports Report, lending him the same credibility-via-TV he later got from ESPN. “They saw us,” said Wilbon, “and in turn it helped my ability to write columns or report on the NFL.”

In 1988, ESPN launched The Sports Reporters. “We created a show, and ESPN copied it,” said Nicole Watson, a BET producer who later worked at ESPN. “A lot of people don’t know that.” Noting the similarities, Burwell once remarked on the air, “Let’s flip over to ESPN and look at a show they ripped off from this show.”

Neal’s BET game of the week had a trickle-up effect on pro sports. Ernie Accorsi, the longtime NFL general manager, told me he scoured BET games for prospects. When Wes Unseld was coaching the Washington Bullets, the team drafted guard A.J. English because Unseld saw him play on BET.

Football had a defining effect on BET itself. As Johnson biographer Brett Pulley noted, BET was both a source of pride for viewers and an object of frustration because of Johnson’s focus on inexpensive comedy and music shows. “Frankly, that’s where the money was made on BET, showing music videos,” said Johnson. He liked to quip that the “E” stood for entertainment, not a higher principle like enlightenment. Critics called it “Bad Entertainment Television.”

Football “was never a profit center,” said Johnson. “But it did differentiate BET from the other networks.” Like a big Smiley interview, football gave BET an image of well-roundedness it needed to win over cable providers. At BET’s birth, in 1980, it reached fewer than 4 million homes. A decade later, BET was in 20 million. In 2000, when the number of homes climbed to 60 million, Johnson sold BET to Viacom for nearly $3 billion, making him the nation’s first Black billionaire. “BET and myself owe a lot to Charlie Neal,” he said.

In 2005, Johnson was still BET’s CEO when he decided to stop showing college football due to competition from the ESPN networks. “From a business standpoint, I guess in one respect I understand what he was doing,” said Neal. “I don’t accept it, but I understand it.” In 2005, Neal called Morehouse-Benedict, the first college football game on ESPNU.

Neal never got a full-time gig calling football on one the broadcast networks. “I think the networks really, really did Charlie wrong,” said Doug Williams. “Ain’t no way in the world that Charlie Neal shouldn’t have been on one of the regular networks or cable stations doing sports, especially football.” He added: “Charlie Neal was born too soon.”

When I asked Neal about that, he cited his work for CBS and Turner. “I’ve had those opportunities,” he said. “As Martin Luther King said, ‘I’ve been to the mountaintop.’ You know? And so I don’t have any regrets.”

The exclusion of Black play-by-play announcers from TV isn’t an ’80s problem. It’s a problem today. There are almost no Black play-by-play announcers in minor league baseball. As of last summer, no major college football team had a Black radio play-by-play announcer. Greg Gumbel is the only Black announcer to handle play-by-play of the main network telecast of the Super Bowl, NBA Finals, or World Series—ever.

In the ’80s, Neal told me, benighted ideas about Black play-by-play announcers and Black quarterbacks seemed almost intertwined. Today, TV executives have a dubious distinction: They’re less progressive than football coaches.

Neal, said James Brown, “gave us hope. He gave us something to shoot for. He was a role model. … There’s no way that I cannot pay homage to that brother and what he meant to me.”

Neal would make a great statesman if he weren’t so busy. In the new year, he plans to announce more MEAC basketball games. He called me from the offices of a bus company where he serves as general manager, 50 years after he drove charters after his radio shifts. Of course Charlie Neal was the last play-by-play voice America heard at the onset of the pandemic. Presented with plans A and B, Neal did ’em both.

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