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When sports stats ruin the fun

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
January 27, 2013 -- Updated 1420 GMT (2220 HKT)
Bob Greene says the proliferation of statistics in sports reporting does little to increase the enjoyment of the game
Bob Greene says the proliferation of statistics in sports reporting does little to increase the enjoyment of the game
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bob Greene asks if it's possible to love sports and have no interest in sports statistics
  • He says sports reporting is awash in stats these days; does it increase enjoyment?
  • He asks former Cleveland Browns quarterback Frank Ryan, who's a mathematician
  • Greene: Ryan rhapsodized about beauty of plays. Does he care about stats? "Not one iota."

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a bestselling author whose 25 books include "Late Edition: A Love Story"; "Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen"; and "When We Get to Surf City: A Journey Through America in Pursuit of Rock and Roll, Friendship, and Dreams."

(CNN) -- As the buildup to next Sunday's Super Bowl intensifies, a simple question for your consideration:

Is it possible to love sports and yet have no interest at all in sports statistics?

Statistics about the games people play have proliferated beyond all reason in recent years. Daily sports stats -- once pretty much confined to agate-type box scores on newspaper pages -- have expanded exponentially, helping to fill the insatiable 24/7 appetite of sports television, sports radio and online sports sites.

Bob Greene
Bob Greene

There is a company -- the Elias Sports Bureau -- that provides all manner of arcane statistics to the National Football League, Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League and various broadcasters. One of the broadcasting entities is ESPN, which each day makes a summary of those statistics available, not just to its producers and on-air employees, but online to the network's fans and followers.

Thus, in recent days, sports fans have been edified by the facts that:

-- Quarterback Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers, in the conference championship game against the Atlanta Falcons, was kept in the pocket on 21 of his 23 dropbacks. This came out to 91.3 percent, which was his highest such rate of the season. While inside the pocket, he averaged 11.5 yards per pass attempt. Not since Week 11 of the regular season, when he averaged 13.5 yards per attempt, had he attained a better rate.

-- The Baltimore Ravens, in their own conference championship victory over the New England Patriots, deployed at least three wide receivers on 31 of the 39 dropbacks by quarterback Joe Flacco. This was their third-highest rate of triple-wide-receiver use of the season.

-- In basketball, in a game against the Toronto Raptors, Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers took 32 shots but made only 10, achieving success on just one out of eight shots in the first quarter. Over the last nine years, there had been only one other occasion when Bryant had shot at least eight times in the first quarter while sinking no more than one.

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So the question is:

Does being bombarded with all this information really do anything to increase the enjoyment of watching games?

Or does it get in the way? Is it just a method to turn what should be the poetry of sports into prose -- or, more accurately, into bookkeeping?

Yes, the micro-universe of those numbers is undoubtedly useful to coaching staffs, and also to people who participate in fantasy sports leagues. But does the ubiquity of the numbers, on the air and in written coverage, serve as an irritant, even a blockade of sorts, to fans who simply want to savor what's going on in front of them?

I asked myself what would happen if, hypothetically, a mathematical genius became a top-level professional sports star. What would such a person think of all this emphasis on statistics? Would he approve of it?

And then I remembered:

There really was such a person.

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Quarterback Frank Ryan of the Cleveland Browns during the Jim Brown era was a Ph.D. in mathematics.

He spent eight years earning his doctorate at Rice Institute (he wrote his thesis on "A Characterization of the Set of Asymptotic Values of a Function Holomorphic in the Unit Disc"). In the NFL's off season he was an assistant professor of mathematics at Case Western Reserve University.

He also, in 1964 (before there was a Super Bowl), led the Browns to the NFL championship, defeating Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore Colts 27-0 in the title game.

Play-by-play announcers referred to him as "Dr. Frank Ryan." Sports Illustrated put him on the cover with the line: "Doctor Ryan of the Browns."

I hadn't heard a word about him in years. But I was able to find him in rural Vermont, where, at age 76, he lives with his wife, Joan, and continues to work on complicated math problems and write computer code.

And he watches football on television.

His feeling about the statistics of sports?

Fans "absolutely don't need them" to enjoy the games, he said.

Ryan said that he chooses to ignore them. The pleasure of sports, he said, is to let the joyous flow of a game take you over.

If anyone would fully understand the relationship between mathematical figures and sports probabilities, Ryan is that person. But he shrugs them off.

Jim Brown, considered by many to be the greatest running back, if not the greatest football player, who ever lived, lined up in the backfield with Ryan on every play. I asked Ryan how many times he had handed the ball to Brown.

"A bunch," he said, laughter in his voice.

He had no idea of the number -- the number was unimportant.

What he did remember was the feeling of the moment -- of all the moments:

"The way he received the ball from me, he started in whatever direction he was going to run. He held both elbows close to his belt, and I would hand him the ball in his mid-section. He would scoop it up -- he had a very relaxed way of scooping the ball into his gut, and he'd envelop it, then shift it to one hand or the other, and then he'd take off downfield ... ."

It was gorgeous to watch, for the fans in the stands and in front of their television sets -- and, from the sound of Ryan's voice as he recalled it, it was gorgeous to be a part of.

"Stunning to see," he said.

The glory of what is right in front of his eyes is still what Ryan said he treasures about games. He believes the 49ers-Ravens Super Bowl will be a superb contest between two great teams but, with all the statistics that will be made available before and during the game, he plans to pay attention to none of them.

"Not one iota," he said.

Among the things he does plan to enjoy, he said, is the sight of Colin Kaepernick's passes floating through the air.

"The spiral of the ball," Ryan said. "As you track the ball in the air, the way he throws it, the ball spins on its axis in a way that has no wobble. It's really something to look at. Me, when I threw the ball, it wobbled all over the place."

The math prodigy with the NFL championship ring paused, then said:

"I've always looked at football for its beautiful element."

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

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