As the latest football season unfolds, a timely book by Daniel J. Flynn takes on the do-gooders who would relegate the sport to the ash heap of history. “The War on Football: Saving America’s Game,” explores the history of the sport and debunks many of the myths surrounding its iconic characters. More importantly, Flynn tackles the oft-repeated misinformation about concussions and other health-related issues critics exploit in their attempts to convince Americans the game is far too violent. He also illuminates why the game remains a critical rite of passage in a nation seemingly bent on emasculating young men.
Flynn begins by shining the spot light on the latest crusade against the sport, noting how many of its uninformed critics compare it to smoking. He reveals the various efforts being undertaken by legislators and the medical community to put new restrictions on the game at the Pop Warner, middle school and high schools levels, as well as critics’ calls for an outright ban. In the process, Flynn de-mythologizes Carlisle Indian School coach Glenn “Pop” Warner, revealing that Warner leaked fake injury information to the press, recruited athletes of dubious academic and amateur standing, and gambled on teams he coached.
Flynn then takes on the central argument of football’s critics, namely that the sport causes too many concussions. He begins with a look at women’s football, and notes that women’s sports activities in general have a higher concussion rate than men’s, yet no one suggests banning women from playing sports. And while football places number one on a list of sports that cause this particular injury, Flynn reveals that girls’ soccer and basketball, as well as ice hockey and boys’ lacrosse, are not far behind.
The “vexing” nature of concussions themselves is also explored in “The War on Football.” What many do not realize is that the field of concussion research is rife with experts who directly profit from their own analyses, such as Mark Lovell and his ImPACT studies. The current science on concussions, however, is inconclusive because there is no test for the symptoms, only a post-event diagnosis. This reality has led a number of scientists and others to speculate about how many concussions go unreported. Flynn explains that such speculation further undermines the science surrounding the injury.
But the science doesn’t stop litigation. Flynn details the current class-action lawsuit filed by former NFL players, which involves about 4000 players. The two main defendants are the NFL and Riddell helmets, despite the reality that many of the plaintiffs never wore Riddell helmets or played in an NFL game. Flynn admits that some of the claims within the overall suit have merit, but notes that players were well aware of the nature of football when they agreed to play the game, and were amply compensated at the time. While such a lawsuit may not frighten the NFL, litigation on the college and high school levels may eventually make football “cost prohibitive” and easier to abolish as a result.
Lawsuits may be a modern albatross on the football industry, but contempt for the “savage” sport is nothing new. The first “Foot-Ball” game, a sport invented by Walter Camp who extrapolated it from English rugby, took place in 1869. Camp himself revealed that even back then there were laws passed “making it an offense to engage in the sport.” Yet the game became impossible to contain as it became a “civilized substitute for war” for the legions of young men returning from WWl. Flynn notes the reality that baseball was a deadlier sport back in that era, but never endured the existential crisis that has regularly attended football.
Both games have evolved into far safer enterprises than they once were, and leading the impetus for football reform was Teddy Roosevelt. In 1905, the Intercollegiate Athletic Association (ICAA), which eventually became the more familiar National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), was formed to reinvent the game, which seemed on the verge of extinction.
Injuries played a large part in precipitating that potential demise. Yet Flynn puts football-related injuries in perspective, noting that several sports, including bicycling, hunting, swimming, skateboarding and horse racing produce more deaths than football. And while Flynn admits the distinction regarding the intent of hits in football, he turns the argument back at the critics, contending that non-intent has produced more fatalities, even as there is no mass movement to ban these other sports. He believes this is because far more attention is paid to football, despite the reality that a game averaging 25 deaths per season in the 1960s averages only four collision deaths a year today. Furthermore, dying from a football hit is less than a one-in-a-million occurrence.
So why the outrage? “Football isn’t less safe,” Flynn writes. “Americans are more squeamish.”
It is a squeamishness abetted by a media-inspired misinformation campaign. Flynn reveals the “conventional wisdom” regarding football players’ shorter-than-average life expectancy is a complete fabrication, perpetrated by former Hall of Fame tackle Ron Mix, who reinvented himself as a workman’s compensation attorney specializing in injured athletes. It was amplified by former NFL lineman Len Teeuws, who became an insurance agent. Though neither man published a study, they inspired the government to do so. It turned the conventional wisdom on its head, revealing that football players lived longer, healthier lives than average Americans. Even the number of neurodegenerative causes of death, which did outpace the general population, were small: out of 334 deaths within and pool of 3,449 players examined, only 17 were attributable to the condition. Furthermore, Flynn notes that many of the highly publicized suicides and violent behavior committed by former players ignore other factors, such as heavy drinking and drug usage.
Anecdotal evidence notwithstanding, Flynn remains convinced the positives of football far outweigh the negatives. He explains how football builds character in ways that other sports can’t, due to its demanding physical requirements, the emotional connection to others it builds in teammates, and the sophisticated strategies that must be mastered to play the game as well as possible. “Football isn’t a game of the body,” Flynn contends. “Its a game of the soul.”
So why is the game currently under fire? “We don’t allow boys to be boys,” he explains, even as that failure leads to physically mature males prolonging adolescence in a culture that “no longer sees childhood as preparation for adult responsibilities.” He compares football to other cultural coming-of-age rituals that are far more dangerous, and notes that the overprotective nature of our culture makes football a necessity now more than ever. “We can abolish football,” he states, “But we can’t abolish nature.” It is nature that produces twenty times the amount of testosterone in young men than in young women, and the resulting angst and aggression can be channeled in ways that are “both maladaptive and adaptive,” he warns.
According to Flynn, football is also bigger than the sport itself. Rituals associated with the sport, including tailgate parties, college romances, and alumni reunions are irresistible to many Americans. The game has also played an integral part in breaking down racial barriers, and gives cities, such as Katrina-battered new Orleans, a sense of pride and hopefulness. It transcends political differences, and prepares men and women for the rigors of war. “Football, like capitalism or the First Amendment helps compose American identity,” Flynn concludes. “It is who we are.”
At the end of the book, Flynn warns that the war on football is perpetual, and that its critics fight for “unconditional surrender.” Yet he notes that the invaluable positives of the game produce Americans with character and integrity. “Lessons abound,” the author concludes. Millions of Americans currently agree: football is the nation’s most popular sport. If Daniel Flynn’s well-organized and highly persuasive argument resonates as it should, it will remain that way.
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