Commentary

Hey, Lions: Give up Turkey Day!

Thanksgiving and the Detroit Lions have a long history, but it's time to break 'em up.

Originally Published: November 25, 2009
By LZ Granderson | ESPN.com

It was around 6 in the morning of a cold and rainy November day in Chicago. The year was 1995, and I had just gotten off a near-16-hour workday and was in desperate need of a shower, food and sleep.

I got none of that.

Instead, I hopped in my car and headed east on I-94. The rain was just beginning to shift into snow; but I remember thinking, If I don't make any stops, I can still make it to the Pontiac Silverdome before kickoff.

[+] EnlargeLions fan Turkey Hat
AP Photo/Paul SancyaMaybe it's time to give the fans of other teams the chance to wear turkey crowns.
It was Thanksgiving Day, and my beloved Detroit Lions needed me.

Since 1934, my hometown football team has hosted a game on Turkey Day. When George Richards, a Detroit radio station owner, bought the Ohio Spartans and moved the team to Detroit, he started the Thanksgiving game as a way to draw interest to his young franchise. Richards used his radio connections to draw a national audience, and the game began being televised in 1956.

Since 1972, I have seen or heard the game (or been there for it). My mother has an old Polaroid of me crying in front of the television, and she's 99.9 percent sure that Lions running back great Billy Sims had just fumbled. I can remember my aunt and uncle getting into an ugly screaming fight, but my uncle waited until the game was over to storm out of the house. My son was supposed to be born on Thanksgiving Day. I prayed for some extra time, and he was born in December.

These are all true stories, and I'm sure there are others who have similar bonds to this game. The Thanksgiving Day game started in Detroit and is very important to people with connections to the city..

So when I say it's time the Lions and the city let this game go, it is not coming from a place either of hate or of love -- but of reason. The franchise is limping, and it would be better for the NFL if it did something about it. I'm saying it's time to stop treating the Lions on Thanksgiving as best in show.

A reshaped Thanksgiving Day schedule can position the NFL to become even more profitable -- and popular -- than it already is. Instead of the league and the networks trying to market a game that annually features one of the worst teams in all of sports over the past decade, imagine what Thanksgiving could look like if, say, the teams from last year's Super Bowl played in a holiday rematch? Or if the league could pencil in a great rivalry game like Pats-Colts. What if the NFL had the option of having Brett Favre's return to Lambeau Field happen on Thanksgiving?

Still, the team resists a change. Lions vice chairman William Ford Jr. said it would be "absolutely criminal to lose [the game]. … Our Thanksgiving Day game is the oldest and greatest tradition in the NFL. This is a tradition that was started by the fans in Detroit and belongs to the fans of Detroit."

And that's a sentiment I agree with. This week marks the 70th anniversary of the game. There are 24 NFL teams that are younger than that. But that doesn't mean the game has to be on national television every year. The way I see it, hard helmets are being worn these days, instant replay is being utilized and 43 percent of NFL fans are women. Traditions are good. But sometimes, change is better.

Why not strike a compromise by lifting the local blackout ban so families like mine can continue the tradition, put Detroit in a national rotation with the other franchises and stream the game for die-hard fans living outside the Detroit metro area?

Fact is, no team that has won only one playoff game in 52 years should be a marquee holiday game on network television just because that's the way it's always been -- not if the goal is to keep people excited about football.

[+] EnlargeTGiving
Getty ImagesWhere it all began: Game 1 of the Lions' Thanksgiving Day tradition, against the Bears in 1934. They lost this one, too.
I once had an entrepreneur tell me that in the world of business, you're either looking to grow or settling to shrink -- ain't no in between. So as much as it pains me to suggest it's time to change the tradition that has defined my hometown franchise, I also recognize that my hometown franchise is selfishly holding back the progress that can keep the NFL as the country's top sport. That might sound a bit dramatic, but remember: The notoriously stagnated MLB used to call itself "America's Pastime" not too long ago.

When you have an opportunity to showcase your best -- or in the case of the Cowboys, your most popular -- product in front of a captive audience, it just isn't good business to offer up your worst instead. And even the most passionate Lions fan would have to agree, Detroit is among the worst.

Ten years ago, the Ford family fought off an initiative to rotate the Thanksgiving game through the league; and since then, the Lions are 42-112 overall, 2-7 on Thanksgiving and on a five-game holiday losing streak. Back in January, commissioner Roger Goodell said he would again approach the owners about considering rotating the Thanksgiving Day game.

Guess that conversation didn't go too well. During a visit to the Lions' training camp late this summer, when Goodell was asked about the possibility of the Lions' losing the game, he said, "I don't see that in the near future." He also pointed to the third Thanksgiving game now on the NFL Network -- available in close to 50 million homes -- as a way for fans to see other teams. And the truth is, even if Goodell wanted to make that change, the move is up to the owners -- specifically Ford. He didn't want to rotate the game 10 years ago, and he's not looking to do it now -- which, I guess, isn't the end of the world. As demonstrated in their dramatic no-seconds-left win against Cleveland on Sunday, my Lions can still play the occasional exciting game.

Disgruntled fans can go on making the Lions a punch line, but I will love my team till the day I die.

I understand one man's treasure is another man's trash, but no man can truly trash a man's treasure.

LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at lzgranderson@yahoo.com.

LZ Granderson | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine