Second of a three-part series
A trailblazer is a pioneer, someone who’s willing to take risks and blaze a new path for others to follow. This three-part series will feature several Black trailblazers in sports.
Before it was sold to Viacom in 2000, Black Entertainment Television (BET) featured a star-studded cast of Black journalists and other personalities. Veteran broadcaster Charlie Neal was part of the network’s 20-year period of BET’s evolution beginning with its inception in 1980 until 2000.
Neal was BET Sports anchor and play-by-play commentator on Black college football and basketball broadcasts. He was instrumental in providing exposure for HBCU institutions in features and profiles of players, coaches, and administrators.
“We were going to do a game every weekend,” he recalled during an MSR interview. “This was an opportunity to expose you to a different university. That was very, very important.”
After BET moved away from sports to become a more entertainment-based network, Neal joined ESPN, primarily doing play-by-play for HBCU football and basketball telecasts on ESPNU, beginning in 2005.
Neal is “The Voice of HBCU Sports” with his signature baritone. “I’m very humbled that they called me that,” he said.
Bryan Curtis in his December 2020 article in The Ringer titled “The Play-by-Play Pioneer Hiding in Plain Sight” quoted BET founder Bob Johnson, ESPN Play-by-Play James Verrett, and CBS’ James Brown among others on Neal’s impact on sports broadcasting. Curtis stressed that with his “announcerly aura,” Neal did for Black schools what the late Keith Jackson did on ABC each fall Saturday.
“Charlie had all of the ingredients of a sports announcer. He had the style, the language, the knowledge,” said Johnson.
Verrett called Neal “our Al Michaels…our Howard Cosell.”
“He has done more Black college football games and basketball games than anybody in the history of mankind,” noted Howard University Sports Information Director Ed Hill.
“He was Mr. It on the Black college circuit,” added Brown, who once worked with Neal at BET.
This trailblazer began his broadcasting career over 30 years ago as a radio disc jockey before he moved into television as a sportscaster in 1971 in Washington, D.C., a member of the first generation of Black local television anchors. Neal also worked in such markets as Detroit, New York and Philadelphia, and also worked for the now-defunct MBC (now the Black Family Channel). He called college sports for CBS and was the studio host for NBA telecasts for TNT.
He reiterated that at nearly every stop in his broadcasting career he was the only Black sportscaster.
Neal joined BET in 1980 to add Black college sports to the network’s regular programming. He picked former HBCU and NFL star Lem Barney as analyst, a partnership that lasted 23 years, two years longer than the more-heralded Pat Summerall and John Madden broadcast team.
Johnson named Neal BET’s executive producer of sports in 1985. He hosted a weekly studio show that featured many Black journalists of the time: Michael Wilbon, the late Ralph Wiley, Bryan Burwell and Roscoe Nance, and David Aldridge on BET.
But the network stopped showing college football in 2005, and Neal eventually moved to ESPNU. He told us he’d “been able to witness and experience” many big-time sporting events, such as the late legendary coach Eddie Robinson breaking Bear Bryant’s all-time wins record.
“I was fortunate to work in major markets,” said Neal. “A lot of Black people when they start out [in sports broadcasting] don’t get a chance to get to Houston or Dallas or New York. When I said I’ve been very fortunate to be able to do this, I have no regrets.”
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Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.