Before welcoming Dale Hansen to the stage, Ellen DeGeneres played the two-minute video segment in which he condemned anonymous critics of Michael Sam’s manhood and asked viewers — even, and perhaps especially, those who found the idea of a gay relationship unusual — to treat Sam with love and respect. Those 356 words had made Hansen nationally famous. Then she beckoned him out: “From Dallas, Texas, please welcome sports anchor Dale Hansen.”
Hansen moved briskly as DeGeneres and a hospitable studio audience gave him a warm welcome. Then he paused for a second, momentarily taking in the applause. It might have felt as if the 65-year-old Iowa native, who’s been leading sports coverage at WFAA-TV in Dallas since 1983, had finally arrived. Thing is, Hansen has been a big deal for quite a while. It’s just that everyone else has finally caught up.
Hansen, the longtime sports anchor for WFAA-TV in Dallas-Fort Worth, first made a name for himself and the station nearly 30 years ago when he broke a story involving a Southern Methodist University slush fund for under-the-table payments to football players. Since then he’s tangled with the area’s sports icons — Tom Landry, Jerry Jones, and Barry Switzer, to name a few — and several times turned down big-money offers from stations and networks in larger media markets. His defense of child victims in the wake of the Penn State sex abuse scandal hinted at a deep reservoir of empathy. And yes, in a metro area where 11 of the 12 congressional representatives are Republicans, he is an unapologetic champion of liberal politics.
“I’m a liberal guy. My bosses hate it on the occasions when I say it,” Hansen told BuzzFeed. “I once wrote about Obamacare and all I said was, ‘I don’t know if it’s the right answer for the country, but we need to sit down and talk about it and find the right answer.’ Every redneck son of a bitch came out of the woodworks and wanted to blow me up.”
Hansen got his first media job in 1974 at a radio station in Newton, Iowa, an old coal mining town of about 15,000. (Yes, coal mining in Iowa.) Within a year, his muckraking had earned him an award as the state’s Associated Press investigative reporter of the year. “It was one of the most corrupt towns I’ve ever been in my life,” he said. “It was amazing the stories that I stumbled into.”
Hansen moved from there to Omaha and then to Dallas, where he started with WFAA in the mid-1980s. He was only a few years into his WFAA gig when he broke open one of the biggest stories in college football history. On Nov. 12, 1986, Hansen aired a 40-minute special revealing SMU was paying — or rather still paying — its football players. SMU, which had already been placed on probation five times between 1974 and 1985 for similar violations, had continued giving some of its players “thousand-dollar signing bonuses, rent-free apartments, and $750-per-month allowances in some cases.” Hansen’s report included an on-air admission from one of the players, linebacker David Stanley, and a live interview with the school’s athletic director, head football coach, and recruiting coordinator. The interview was later immortalized in the ESPN documentary Pony Excess.
Hansen and WFAA’s report were one reason the NCAA handed down the so-called “death penalty” by canceling SMU’s entire 1987 season. It was an unprecedented punishment that hasn’t been levied again, and still looms mythically over every news story and fan conversation about NCAA rules.
Hansen’s investigation “was some of the best television reporting ever, not just for sports,” said Sean Hamilton, WFAA’s director of sports and special projects, who’s worked with Hanson since 1994. “I would put up against any investigative TV report ever done,” he said. “That changed the college football landscape for years to come. And Dale was the backbone of that.”
“I got a lot of criticism for being this hard-hitting tough guy who should’ve just looked the other way,” Hansen said. “It offended me on the one hand. But then I just decided, ‘I think that’s who I want to be.’ And when you strip it all away, that’s in many ways who I have been all along.”
Others outside of Dallas took notice. Hansen entertained job offers from KTLA in Los Angeles and ESPN, which was not yet the sports media behemoth it is today. But he’d grown comfortable in Dallas, which had all of the major pro sports teams, lots of golf courses, and two major airports that could get him to most of his favorite cities within a couple hours. “I never considered leaving,” Hansen said. “People tend to move up and move up until they fail. As comfortable as I am in my skin now, I wasn’t always that way.”
KTLA went in another direction. “They hired Keith Olbermann,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to tell Olbermann that he owes me a ton of money.”
And ESPN? “Back then, they were basically doing lumberjack contests. I don’t remember the name of the guy, but he literally says to me — on my mother’s grave — ‘We’re going to make you the Brent Musburger of ESPN.’ Back then, that was a hell of a compliment.”
There was one more flirtation with network TV in the early 1990s, when Fox Sports beckoned with a $1 million per year contract and a $1 million signing bonus. It still wasn’t enough to lure Hansen from Dallas. “My whole goal in life was to work in a warm major-league city and that’s what I’m doing,” he said. “I place a great deal of emphasis on my lifestyle.”
Hansen accrued even more leverage and prominence locally over the years. At one point Texas A&M football coach Jackie Sherrill used the word “colored” and made disparaging comments about his quarterback’s intelligence in a conversation with Hansen about alleged recruiting violations. Hansen brushed off pleas from Texas A&M’s leadership to kill the story about Sherrill’s choice of words, and later that week called Sherrill “a disgusting human being” on air.
Not long after the commentary aired, Hansen said he was called into a meeting with the station’s general manager. He was surprised to find out he wasn’t in trouble for his comments about the coach.
“Did you quote that goddamn Bobby Kennedy on air and say you were a liberal?” Hansen said the general manager asked him. “You can’t do that.” Hansen, who had indeed invoked an RFK quote in the commentary, told his manager, “I’ll try to watch that in the future.”
In 1994, Hansen got into an animated on-air argument with then-Dallas Cowboys head coach Barry Switzer. According to media accounts from the time, Switzer accused Hansen of “fabricating stories” about dissension on the team’s coaching staff. He screamed at Hansen and “playfully” punched him in the shoulder to emphasize each point.
“If social media had been around then, that would’ve definitely rivaled the last two weeks,” Hamilton said.
More recently, Hansen discussed being a victim of sexual assault in a segment about the Penn State child sexual abuse scandal. During a segment about the Jerry Sandusky case, he told the audience that they all knew somebody who’d been sexually abused. “Because,” he said, “you all know me.” He recounted an incident that occurred when he was 10 and a boy who was six years older “had my pants below my knees before he decided to let me go, and I don’t know why.”
Said Hansen: “That got a tremendous amount of response … I got, maybe, 100 emails.”
It was a prelude to his honest treatment of the Michael Sam story. In the two-minute segment — titled “Hansen Unplugged: Celebrating Our Differences” — Hansen blistered NFL employees who anonymously spoke to the media about their reluctance to draft Sam. “You beat a woman and drag her down a flight of stairs, pulling her hair out by the roots? You’re the fourth guy taken in the NFL draft … You love another man? Well, now you’ve gone too far!” Hansen said.
He says he figured he’d get around 40 messages in response. “I thought about 10 of them would be positive,” he said, “and 30 would be negative.” Instead, he’s gotten more than 4,000 emails; according to WFAA Web Editor Matt Goodman the segment was atop Reddit 48 hours after being posted; combined views on YouTube and WFAA’s site have surpassed 5 million. Hansen became an internet hero, his words shared via headlines like “Old White Guy Drops A Monster Speech On Anti-Gay Football Teams. Seriously Impressive Performance.”
He knows that his commentary took off, in part, because it defied expectations online viewers had about a sportscaster from Texas. In particular, it was his use of a quote from late black writer and civil rights activist Audre Lorde — who described herself as “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” — that caught the attention of many viewers.
“I get it: I’m an old white guy from Dallas,” he said. “You wouldn’t think that would come from me.”
Hansen rode the response all the way from Dallas to the Ellen show in Los Angeles. MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell called Hansen the nation’s “sportscaster of the year.” Piers Morgan wanted to book Hansen for CNN.
So his star is rising again in the twilight of a career that has spanned five decades, starting with his first job as a DJ and operations manager in a tiny Iowa town.
“I honestly didn’t think this was going to be that big of a deal,” Hansen said.
He’s has been renewed a little by his most recent brush with fame. Standing backstage at Ellen, Hansen said he felt a chill.
“If I ever stop feeling like that,” Hansen said, “then I’ll know it’s time to walk away.”