A few weeks ago in this space, I detailed some occupational hazards in relation to the on-field cardiac arrest suffered by Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin in a Jan. 2 game at Cincinnati.
The NFL, like most sports, certainly has its share of dangers, with great steps having been taken to enhance player safety. And jobs from one end of the spectrum to the other each have their own unique perils, some more obvious than others.
On the hazard scale, sports writing ranks somewhere near the bottom. After all, tapping away on a laptop computer doesn’t really qualify as death defying.
Now, there were a few times while driving in wintry weather on the way to covering a high school sporting event that I thought I was playing fast and loose with my life. On one such occasion in early January 1999, it took me almost an hour to drive one mile on Route 8 southbound in Akron. The roads weren’t good when I left our driveway in Cuyahoga Falls, but “weren’t good” would have been a massive improvement over the snowscape that greeted me when I drove up the entrance ramp and onto Route 8.
Within seconds, I realized that I needed to get off the highway as soon as possible lest my car end up a mass of twisted metal beneath the wheels of a tractor-trailer. It took a while and it wasn’t easy, but somehow I managed to slip and slide the car back the few miles to the safety of our driveway, certain that a good five years had been shaved off my life in the process. After prying my fingers off the steering wheel, I staggered back into the house to call the office in Ravenna and tell them I wouldn’t be in on account of the road conditions.
The person who answered the phone lived in Ravenna. “Well, I got here in a couple minutes,” the voice said. To which I replied: “I live in Cuyahoga Falls. It’s a half-hour for me to get to Ravenna on a good day, and it just took me two hours to get from my house to Route 8 and back.” Undeterred, the voice answered: “The roads aren’t that bad here” — a not-so-veiled accusation that I was making this stuff up. So I said: “Well, here’s what we’ll do. Since the roads are so good there, you drive over here to Falls and pick me up and we’ll go into the office together.”
I’m still waiting for my ride.
And that’s about as hazardous as it gets for a sports writer — unless you count angry readers, whom I would classify more as one of a journalist’s three facts of life (along with death and taxes) rather than a hazard. But why get bogged down in semantics?
If I were to sit here and detail all the angry responses directed my way in the course of my 35 years in journalism, I wouldn’t live long enough to finish the list. Not only that, even NASA’s Aitken supercomputer couldn’t possibly remember them all. Let’s just say the list is … lengthy. However, some remarks stand out from the crowd and are forever seared into my memory:
– Back in my Barberton Herald days, an angry reader from Barberton wrote a letter (remember those?) to me blasting Barberton High School’s decision to join the Metro League and play — his words — “cake eaters like Stow, Kent and Ravenna” every year. He actually used the term “cake eaters” several times. He even wanted to meet me at a local eatery to discuss the situation. At a bakery, I assumed. (Note: I’ve lived in Stow the past 23 years, and I eat no more cake here than I did anywhere else I’ve lived).
– Sometime around 2004 or ’05, Ravenna and Field played a key football game at Ravenna. Ravenna won. A few days later, we received an angry email from a Field fan saying that our coverage was ridiculously slanted toward Ravenna. The next day, we received an angry email from a Ravenna fan saying our coverage was ridiculously slanted toward Field. I thought we should just introduce them to each other and leave us out of it.
– Here’s something that happened all the time: Readers firing off angry emails to us saying, “You only cover our games when we lose!” Let’s take this chronologically: a game between two teams is scheduled, the two teams play the game, the score is 0-0 when the game starts, then the game finishes with one team winning and the other losing. If the score is 0-0 when a game starts — which every game is — then how is it we are correctly predicting that a certain school’s team is going to lose with that degree of accuracy? If I could pick winners and losers like that, I would have been in Vegas a long, long time ago. And retired.
– I took a call from a reader once who was furious that one team got a longer game story in the paper than his team. He even told me the date the story published. I had him hang on the line while I dug up the issue (I slow-footed it, hoping I’d hear a dial tone when I picked the phone back up), I found said issue, looked at the two story lengths, and observed that they were very similar. I picked the phone back up (our intrepid reader was still on the line, by the way), and I said: “Sir, these two stories look pretty close in length to me.” “Well, they’re not!” he snorted. “I know, because I measured them. Theirs is five inches longer!” He had actually grabbed a ruler and measured the two stories in his copy of the Record-Courier. And we were told the Unabomber had been caught.
– Last one: One angry reader happened to be a coach. She called me one day, not happy at all that we hadn’t covered any of her team’s games yet. The season was only a couple weeks old, but apparently that was a couple weeks too many for the coach. I said we would be out soon to cover one of her games, but she wasn’t interested in problem solving, she only wanted me to hear how angry she was about our “oversight.” She read me the proverbial riot act; I mean, she wasn’t even remotely nice or professional about it. When she finally finished, I calmly asked her what would be a good game for us to come out and cover. She snapped: “Our next one, at home. The team we’re playing is terrible. They won’t win a game this year; we’ll beat them easily. It’ll be a great way to get a bunch of the girls’ names in the paper because we’re going to score a lot.” The game ended in a 0-0 tie.
The above accounts stand the test of time, and anyone in this industry could tell the same stories. We can sit around and laugh about them now, even if we fumed over them then.
But at least they’re humorous — and not hazardous.