Three years ago, after the publication of a memoir covering my life in the sportscasting world, I cancelled my briefly-held accounts at Facebook and Twitter. I recognize that social media has many great values—and indeed I have enjoyed hearing from folks I have worked and/or socialized with over many years, but I am afraid that this world-wide gabfest arrived too late for me to fully appreciate it. I have also recognized that it has many faults and flaws. As for Twitter, I never did master the work ethic to read and react to 140 characters of nonsense spewed by millions of insomniacs.
I left my broadcast career with a few thoughts and observations, which have been updated by recent events. As most sports fans, I will miss the sports schedules being properly postponed or cancelled by the horrors of the virus pandemic —especially football, which is literally in my DNA, although some TV fans may have identified me more with several other sports—NHL hockey on NBC in the 1970’s, N.Y. Islanders games in their Stanley Cup in the early ’80’s, boxing during its glory years on network television in the ’80’s and early ’90’s, Grand Slams tennis, (including 25 U.S. Opens ), ski racing at six of the ten Olympic Games I covered, and many World Championships in ski racing, figure skating and Equestrian competitions.
But with my father Joe Ryan’s Hall of Fame career as a “builder” in the CFL, my early coverage in Canada and then more than 20 years of NFL and college football on NBC, CBS and ESPN, football still remains a passion—now as a spectator (and TV critic!), I tend to care most about the Green Bay Packers and their all-time great QB Aaron Rodgers —and Justin Love will have to wait his turn as Aaron did behind Bret Favre!
BUT…..I fear for the sport I love. In my judgment the game cannot last another generation unless it acknowledges and confronts its concussion/brain damage issue. As I see it, the facts are that evolution has produced human beings who are simply, bigger, stronger and faster. Those physical gifts have superseded athletes’ abilities to avoid serious head injuries in all contact sports—but especially in football where the need for blocking and tackling is the basis of every play. We are now witness to more frequent delays, caused by more penalties being called, and virtually on every play nowadays, a player injured and requiring trainers and sometimes doctors to come onto the field. We used to utter a “wow” when we saw a “great hit”—now more often, we simply cringe and hope for the best.
Clearly the NFL and NCAA are aware of this threat to the game, and have made some rule changes that endeavor to limit the number of concussion injuries, but the changes have had little impact. The fact that athletes are “bigger, stronger, faster” is effecting rule changes in other contact sports like hockey and rugby—in fact , in rugby , which spawned “American football,” more stringent penalties have been applied to reduce head injuries in that helmet-less sport. But without even more drastic changes in football’s rules —from the pros down to the kids, I don’t believe the game can survive—and shouldn’t.
I offer one daring thought to preserve football. A more sophisticated version of “flag” football. NFL and college teams practice with “7 on 7”— stripping away the guards and tackles, to work on pass offense and defense. Great passes, catches and interceptions still take place. The running game could remain with rule changes regarding tackling —certainly banning head contact of any kind. There is obviously much room for debate and better ideas. Spare a thought for out-of-work guards and tackles, but the big guys will be the healthier for it!
Now as for the anthem issue. I respect Colin Kaepernickʼs principled conduct, and I respect those folks who disagree with his action. Why it took the murder of George Floyd for the NFL —and hopefully other sports leagues—to see the light is a sad commentary on NFL owners.
BUT…I have long thought that anthems donʼt belong at football games, or baseball, or hockey or any sports events—EXCEPT country /country competitions i.e. Davis and Federation Cup tennis, World Cup soccer, team events at the Olympics where the athletes are representing their countries— not just cities and team owners and fans.
Anthems are for national holidays, and government events and occasions where the nation is affected— Independence Day, Martin Luther King Day, Presidential inaugurations and funerals, public tributes to people who have given greatly to our country.
I know, I know, fans come to games EXPECTING an anthem to be played, it’s a ’’tradition’ —but that’s not WHY they come, they come to watch the athletes PLAY THE GAME !
(Check the busy concession stands at stadiums while the anthem is playing).
Sporting events are NOT patriotic occasions, but pro leagues and college conferences have turned their pre-games into displays of flags and military demonstrations— frequently even more at halftimes. Why? Well the NFL owners came up with a good reason in recent years, although they didnʼt advertise it—they charged the Armed Services for the costs involved to stage the shows and the TV networks sold them TV commercial time. But the idea of anthems at sporting events somehow got into the culture many years ago —and stayed. Itʼs time for them to go.
And hereʼs my final thought on anthems at sporting events—once the leagues started inviting singers and musicians to perform the anthem, the poor old “Star Spangled Banner” took a beating. Many performers show-off their own versions of the melody and/or forget the lyrics, leading to some simply awful renditions. (Remember Roseanne Barr?) Francis Scott Key must turn in his grave every time some celebrity mangles his tune from a boxing ring, a hockey rink, a baseball park or a football stadium.
Tim Ryan’s “On Someone Elseʼs Nickel”, published by Radius Book Group, is still available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and by ordering at bookstores nationwide!