In Defence Of Warren Ryan


Warren Ryan has had his career, indeed his reason for being, invalidated and no-one has celebrated his life’s work. To which responses might range from “who is Warren Ryan?”’ to “he deserves to be forgotten”.

The ABC would be hoping that Ryan fades away, at least figuratively. If so, he can thank a paranoid, mean-spirited ABC, an organisation to whom he gave years of service.

Ryan went from fame to infamy recently when he used the words “old darky” on air, and recounted a “quittin’ time” sequence when quoting an African-American character from Gone With The Wind.

He was commenting on a rugby-league match. Ryan and his fellow commentator, long-time ABC sports broadcaster David Morrow, who didn’t quote from the film, were stood down pending an inquiry.

Ryan subsequently penned a letter of resignation, saying it obviated the need for an inquiry, and an apology would be insincere.

The Warren Ryan Medal, awarded to the season’s best-and-fairest player, has been re-named.

By any measure, the Ryan comments were silly, insensitive and out-of-date. But by another measure, the way he has been treated has been appalling and dwarfs his alleged crime.

Any ABC inquiry would be unlikely to air some of the deeper themes attached to the Ryan broadcast.

But why an inquiry?

It would only find Ryan’s comments were… insensitive and out-of-date. Phrases like “old darkie” are clearly no longer acceptable, and anyway, it was a tortured, laboured analogy. A better one could have been chosen.

Listeners could have reached those conclusions after a moment’s reflection.

An ABC executive could have pulled Ryan aside after the broadcast, explained why it was an inappropriate analysis and offered a few quiet truths.

On his next broadcast, Ryan could have said no offence was meant to anyone who may have been offended, and been allowed a non-grovelling explanation of his choosing.

Fairness may have dictated this was proportionate to the crime, especially given Ryan’s many years with the ABC, and his popularity with listeners.

Instead, he’s been sacrificed by an ABC paranoid after The Chaser lapse, and under siege from the federal government, News Ltd and shock jocks.

Had the Ryan inquiry proceeded, it’s certain two elements wouldn’t have been discussed.

After the late art historian Robert Hughes suffered a near-fatal car accident in Western Australia, the media said he’d described the other car’s occupants as “curry munchers”.

The Hughes who’d written The Fatal Shore couldn’t be said to have lacked humanity; nor could the breadth of his extended writings say he practised a selective humanity.

Hughes denied using the term, but whether he did doesn’t matter.

The Hughes-Ryan examples are part of a syndrome.

Seize on a trivial isolated comment or incident, however out of character, make them representative of a life, and everyone can congratulate themselves on their nice, clean souls.

There is another element to the Ryan episode.

An inquiry would be unlikely to discuss one of the destructive curses of the age: the ‘if-it-didn’t-happen-in-my-lifetime-then-it-didn’t-happen’ syndrome.

In a showbiz sense, this was best expressed by bandleader Paul Schaeffer’s recalling that singer Brittany Spears asking him in a lift: “Who is Bob Hope?”

To Ryan, and to those above a certain age, it’s incomprehensible such a question would be asked.

Some of Ryan’s listeners wouldn’t have heard of Gone With The Wind – after all, the film was made in 1939. Nor might they have heard of the once-famous Margaret Mitchell novel on which it was based.

How could they recognise the quotes? They weren’t even born then.

Ryan’s analysis would have been mystifying.

They wouldn’t know The Bulletin magazine once had a logo ‘Australia for the white man’, that ‘he’s a white man’ was once a compliment. They wouldn’t have known that phrases like ‘[n-word] in the woodpile’ and ‘a touch of the tar brush’ were once in common currency. As was ‘darky’.

Language and attitudes have moved on. Ryan’s fateful commentary marked him as a man out of time.

But what has the ABC invalidated?

A brief recap of the Ryan career: Commonwealth Games representative in the shot put in 1962; the Cronulla Sharks first-grade rugby-league captain; premiership-winning captain-coach in the Wollongong competition; Country Firsts captain against City.

If it had of stopped right there, that would have been a meritorious career, but it was just preparation for his real life’s work, as a coach.

Ryan won two premierships, took three teams to grand finals and was recognised as an innovator.

A former schoolteacher, Ryan favoured the analytical over the fire-and-brimstone motivational approach.

He also left a dynasty; players he tutored who became successful coaches.

His most successful protégé, Phil Gould, has acknowledged Ryan’s influence on his coaching and the modern game.

Ryan also played with and against and coached many Aboriginal people. Players like John Ferguson and Ray Blacklock, whom he coached at Newtown in his first senior appointment. None have accused him of racist rants, of discrimination or stereotyping.

There have been no accusations of the once-schoolteacher permitting racist abuse or bullying in the playground.

Post-coaching, Ryan wrote insightful, entertaining columns for first, The Sydney Morning Herald, and later The Newcastle Herald and Courier Mail.

And there was the ABC commentary for all those years.

His former coach might have spotted the irony of Gould being acknowledged in the Queen’s Birthday honours list, simultaneous with Ryan being vilified.

Given the Gould-Ryan parallels, a gong for Ryan wouldn’t have been a shock.

After the criticism he’s copped, Ryan might have noted something else.

Rugby league legend Andrew Johns, whom Ryan coached at Newcastle, was in hot water a few years back after a motivational rant at a NSW training camp before a State-of-Origin match.

The rant featured insulting racial descriptions, way beyond the ‘old-darky, curry-muncher’ level, applied to Aboriginal Queensland players.

NSW player Timana Tahu walked out of the camp in protest and didn’t return.

Johns has survived and prospered; is a player of the century, has his lucrative media and coaching-consultant career.

There was an innocence attached to John’s response to criticism. After all, it was nothing personal, just a motivational tool. For him, all’s fair in love and football, and what else is there?

By contrast, Ryan has been metaphorically hung.

But then Johns is unlikely to make Gone With The Wind references. The book-film appeared a long time before he was born.

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