NewsBusters Interview: Daniel Flynn on the War on Football

There’s no question that football is the most popular sport in America. For decades, NFL games have been the top-rated program on all of television even as hundreds of other networks have started up and fragmented the television audience. College football also continues to be reliably popular with many universities desperately seeking to cash in on bowl games and endorsements.

The success of football has made it a target for the bottom-feeders known as the trial lawyers, however, and in recent years, there have been several enormous lawsuits launched against the NFL and against its official helmet manufacturer, Riddell. These lawsuits, and the often shoddy science behind them have been seized upon in the media, even by some people who should know better.

As a result, there are a lot of myths about football that have been spread far and wide, one of which is the false idea that men who play professional football are more likely to die sooner than men who didn’t. That is simply untrue.

I had a chance to speak with one person who is trying to sort the fact from the fiction, author Dan Flynn. He’s written a new book called The War on Football: Saving America’s Game which is now available. His book looks at some of the real science and also examines how some of the ongoing lawsuits will create more harm to high school kids who want to play the game than the wealthy NFL.


MATTHEW SHEFFIELD: Thanks for joining us today, Dan. My first question for you is about your title. I wonder if some people when they see the phrase “war on football” might they wonder why you called it that. I’ve seen some reviewers online claim that no one is trying to put politics into sports here and that it’s you who is trying to politicize things. What is your response to that?

DANIEL FLYNN: I don’t think the word liberal appears once in the book. I think if anyone is looking for a politicization of football, they’re going to be disappointed with the book because it doesn’t do that whatsoever. I think football transcends politics. You can look up at the stands and you’ll see America. And out on the fields, the players transcend class distinctions. They come from all religious and racial backgrounds. It is really where you see America.

The people who are agitating against football they run the gamut from everyone from George Will on the Right to Malcom Gladwell who’s probably in the center to a guy like [ESPN commentator] L.Z. Granderson who’s on the left so just as the enthusiasts for the game vote in every which way imaginable, the people who are against the game do so as well. It doesn’t really fit into anyone’s left-right narrative.

SHEFFIELD: In terms of the overall premise of the book, in your opinion there is a lot of really bad journalism about injuries in sports and also about the scientific claims now being made about certain types of injuries such as concussions. There have been quite a few high-profile multi-million dollar lawsuits that are ongoing right now. Can you tell our readers about some of those?

FLYNN: Yeah, I think that is where a lot of the bad science comes from. The war on football stems from the fact that former players who once cashed in on the sport are now trying to cash in again.

I think what a lot of your readers don’t understand is that about 10 percent of the guys who are suing the NFL never actually even played a down in an actual game. So you’ve got guys who may have been on the practice squad or got cut during the preseason and they’ve never actually even played a down in the league. And I keep looking at the guys who actually did play the game and a lot of them include kickers who played in five games, backup quarterbacks who barely saw any action, even replacement players from the 1987 strike season who played those three replacement games but never saw the NFL again. These people are now suing the NFL.

I don’t think you have to be terribly cynical to look at some of these plaintiffs and to say that these were guys who played kids football, they played in high school, they played in college, they may have even played in other pro leagues. The idea that they got their brain injuries from a cup of coffee that they spent in the NFL, that’s really hard to believe.

SHEFFIELD: One of the other suits is against the football helmet manufacturer Riddell, could you talk about that a little bit?

FLYNN: Yeah, Riddell—When I was in the Marine Corps, I wore something they called a webbed suspension helmet and I was in the Marine Corps into the 21st century and that suspension technology was invented by John T. Riddell before World War II and it was required for military use during that time up into the 21st century. Football ditched that in the 1970s when it gave way to padded helmets, air helmets, water helmets, all of those kinds of things. What football helmets do is prevent skull fractures, subdural hematomas, and it used to be the case that the controversy over football was not that it gave concussions but that football kills players. In 1968, there were 36 players at all levels of competition who died from football hits. Last year, there were 2 players who died from football hits, both in adult leagues. No kid playing football died last year from a hit. So there were more kids who died getting struck by lightning last season than died from getting struck by other players.

So the football helmets have done a remarkably good job at doing what they purport to do. Riddell, which has been the official helmet of the NFL for the past quarter century or so got dragged into the lawsuit. And what’s interesting is that not only are plaintiffs in the suit who have never played a game, there are also players who didn’t wear Riddell helmets or who generally wore helmets from other manufacturers. So when you see a guy like Eric Dickerson on the cover of Sports Illustrated wearing a Bike helmet and now he’s suing Riddell, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Andrew Vegler [sp] who was on the cover of Sports Illustrated in the late 1970s when the Raiders won the Super Bowl is very clearly wearing a Wilson helmet. I don’t understand how guys like that can sue Riddell. So just as there is a lot of bad science surrounding the suit, there is a lot of dishonesty within the suit. Players suing either Riddell or the NFL who shouldn’t have had standing to sue them.

SHEFFIELD: So it’s primarily because Riddell and the NFL have deep pockets then?

FLYNN: They have deep pockets. Riddell is obviously the industry leader and the NFL approaches about $10 billion a year in revenue. The reason they are suing the NFL instead of all the other leagues they played in is that the NFL is the richest league that they played in. It’s a big target just like Microsoft is a big target for some of its competitors, the NFL is a big target for former players who have some get-rich-quick schemes in mind.

But it’s also big for the lawyers as well. In the 1970s, there used to be 16 or 17 major helmet manufacturers, now there’s about 4. and the reason for that is by the early 1980s, the money coming into helmet manufacturers was less than they were paying out in legal settlements and in insurance premiums. So it became a not very profitable industry and as a result, a lot of the manufacturers left the industry.

The sad result of all that is that there was less competition. Football helmet technology really remained rather stagnant for several decades and the net effect is that those lawsuits have been bad for players. My sense is that these lawsuits now are going to be bad for the game of football. The NFL can withstand paying out $765 million to the former players, they’re going to be just fine, they’ve got the highest-rated show on television, they’re making money hand over fist.

What I worry about is when some of these suits trickle down to the high schools and to the Pop Warner level, football is going to become a game that only the wealthy people can afford to play. Traditionally, it has been a game that the blue collar class has also enjoyed. Because of this lawsuit, it’s possible that these other leagues will get wiped out not just financially but also because if a lot of people get the impression that signing your kid up for football means signing him up for brain damage, mothers are not going to want to sign their kids up for football.

People have already seen something like this happen, already there’s been a 6 or 7 percent drop-off in football participation last year. High school football was down in the first time in about 20 years so already you’re seeing an effect from the propaganda campaign surrounding the lawsuit hurting high school football. And that’s really what I’m trying to save here, I’m defending football, I’m celebrating football. This is not a defense of the NFL but rather it’s a celebration of the game of football which is a lot broader than the NFL.

There’s about 4 million football players in America. There is only about 2,000 guys tops in the NFL. So this is a lot bigger than the NFL.

SHEFFIELD: One of the other things you mention in your book is that the news about football tends to be a lot worse than the facts. Why do you suppose that is?

FLYNN: I think there is a lot of money at stake here. Concussions, Inc. is a billion-dollar industry now both with the settlements—$765 million in settlements this year—and also earlier this year there was a $100 million grant this year to Harvard to study concussions and to provide medicine to these guys. So we’re talking about this huge industry and because there’s so much money on the line, there’s so much misinformation that is propping a lot of that money up to make the field more sexy and exciting than even a few years ago.

One of the very basic myths about football is that it’s not good for you. It’s not healthy and if you play the game a long time, you’re going to die early. George Will put out a column last year saying that the average life expectancy of an NFL player is in his 50s but when the scientists actually looked at this, they found that the players actually lived longer. Guys who play in the NFL live longer than the average male.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health looked at every pension-invested NFL player who played in the league between 1959 and 1988 and they got about 3500 players and they found that not only did the players have a lower mortality rate, they were expecting to find 18 percent mortality rate but instead found 10 percent mortality rate, of the 17 categories that they looked at, the football players actually outperformed the non-NFL peer group in 14 of the 17 categories. These were things like heart disease, cancer, respiratory problems, even suicide was much lower among the football players than it was among guys in general society. And I think that would be shocking to a lot of people because we are just bombarded by the idea that football is unhealthy when it is actually good for you.

The number one problem in this country isn’t brains, it’s bellies. We are a fat country and we should be encouraging kids to participate in sports, particularly sports like football because it has traditionally been the way to get the class fatso off the couch and into some cleats. The thing about football is that it gives some advantages to things like bulk and brawn that are actually disadvantages in other sports. I think we should be encouraging sports.

SHEFFIELD: One person in your book mentions something called the “wussification of America.” Can you talk about that in this context?

FLYNN: I think we have a very difficult time understanding boys in our society. Boys are outdoors-oriented, they’re aggressive they like mud and physical, rough body contact and our society is drifting away from that. We live in an indoor, passive-aggressive society that sort of shuns the sort of physical contact that football features and celebrates.

When you look at boys today, there’s something going on in the classroom where the boys are jumping off the walls. And instead of giving them a football or a basketball, we’re giving them Ritalin and Adderall [prescription drugs for Attention Deficit Disorder]. Forty years ago, 1 out of every 20 teens was obsese, now it’s 1 out of every 5 teens. And football can help play a very constructive role in the war against obesity.

And then you have one of the other biggest challenges facing boys today is that so many of them grow up without a father, 40 percent of kids are born into the world without their father being married to their mother. Now I’m not suggesting that football can replace a dad, it can’t, but if you are a 12-year-old boy and you lack discipline, you can find that on a football field. If you lack focus, you can find that on the football field. If you lack camaraderie, if you lack male authority figures, you can find all that on a football field. So I think a lot of what ails us as a society, particularly what ails boys, can be somewhat alleviated through the game of football and through other sports.

SHEFFIELD: Speaking of other sports, one of the things you talk in the book about is that there is such a focus on preventing concussions now but yet a lot of people don’t seem to notice that a lot of women and girls who play sports are much more likely to get concussions.

FLYNN: That’s right. Football at the high school level tends to have more concussions than any other sport, lacrosse and hockey are behind it for the total number of concussions but because so many more people play football it’s going to have the higher total rate. And it does have the highest incident rate as well so it’s not like I’m trying to say that football isn’t a rough game or there aren’t dangers. There are.

But there are a lot of other sports that we don’t seem to try to asses the risk of other than football. Take skateboarding. Last year, there were 30 kids who died from collisions while skateboarding. And obviously the playing surface in skateboarding is a lot harder than it is in football. And they go a lot faster in skateboarding and not everyone wears a helmet. So there are lot of other things that parents let their kids do that are a lot more deadly than football. But it’s just because the intensity in football is a lot greater that there’s sort of a focus on the dangers of football.

And you bring up the point of concussions in girls’ sports. When there is a comparable boy-girl sport, something like basketball, the concussions in girls’ basketball tend to be about double what they tend to be in boys’ basketball. Same thing with softball and baseball. And in soccer, girls also get concussions at about double the rate.

So you really could see it that instead of obsessing about the sport that causes the most concussions, you could instead talk about the sex that is having the most concussions. Suddenly, I think everyone would recognize that this is not a very progressive crusade but rather a very retrograde crusade. Because everyone understands that sports are good for girls. And I think what I want to do with The War on Football is to get people to understand that football is beneficial to boys in the same way that sports in general are beneficial to girls.

SHEFFIELD: Do you see any parallels between how the media have gotten swept away in shoddy science with football to some other areas?

FLYNN: I would draw a parallel to some of the scare stories that the media gin up every few years. When I was a kid, the media would often talk about killer bees coming to America, these killer bees were going to come from South America and there’d be an epidemic of these deadly bee stings. Never happened. Every summer, the media go crazy about shark attacks. Even when there are statistically fewer shark attacks against people in the water, this will be a huge story in America.

The media will jump on a story like Y2K or acid rain that doesn’t have a whole lot of basis in fact and it will cause mass hysteria. And I think that’s what’s happening with football today. There are a lot of fears about football and not a lot of facts. That’s what I’ve tried to do in my book—provide the facts to parents who are skittish about allowing their kid to play football. Football is not for every boy but I am suggesting that it is great for some boys and some boys love it. If football didn’t exist, there’s some kid out there who would invent it.

So to me, the war on football is a futile crusade because biologically boys are going to be drawn to aggressive things, they’re going to be drawn to some of these other rough outdoor pursuits, of which football is one. And the idea of abolishing it is about as sensible as abolishing boys.

SHEFFIELD: On that point, President Obama interjected himself into this issue and he seemed to say that he thinks it is inevitable that the game will change in significant ways, at least at the pro level. Do you agree with that?

FLYNN: I think the game has always been changing. That is the difference between football on the one hand and baseball on the other. Baseball is a very traditional game, it’s a static game. Ty Cobb could step on a baseball field today if he were alive and still know the rules of the game, he would understand it. Baseball hasn’t changed a whole lot in the last hundred years. Football has changed dramatically and it’s always changing.

I mean think of the name “football.” It was called football because people kicked a ball into a goal the same way they do in soccer. And then a few years in, they said, ‘You know what, it’d be a lot more fun to kick the ball above the goal instead of in the goal.’ And that’s where we got the goalposts from.

And then football transformed from a kicking game into a running game, similar to rugby. And after that fateful 1905 season where you had 18 players killed at all levels of competition, Theodore Roosevelt actually held a White House summit on football after that season because of all the commotion about the game and the dangers. Football was reformed, you got the forward pass, you got the neutral zone, the idea of forward motion on the offense before the snap was banned in most of American football after that 1905 season.

So the game was changing in really dramatic ways at the beginning of the last century. The changes we’re seeing now, I don’t think are dramatic changes. They’re good changes, but I don’t think they changed the nature of the game. Now if a running back gets penalized for lowering his helmet into a defensive player, that’s a change but it’s not a change of the magnitude of the forward pass. So I think if football can survive and still be called football after they brought in the forward pass, I don’t think what’s happening now is cause for alarm. Some of the football purists are screaming bloody murder but I don’t think they understand the history of their game. Football has traditionally been a game of change, it’s a progressive game, it’s an evolutionary sport. It is evolving now and it has always evolved. That is just the nature of football.

SHEFFIELD: All right, well thanks for joining us today, Daniel Flynn. The book is The War on Football: Saving America’s Game.

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