MR. DRISCOLL: This is Ed Driscoll for PJ Media.com, and we’re talking today with Daniel J, Flynn, who writes at Flynn Files.com. He also writes at the American Spectator, and is the author of The War On Football: Saving America’s Game. It’s published by Regnery, and available from Amazon.com and your local bookstore. And Dan, thank you for stopping by today.
MR. FLYNN: Hey, thank you for having me.
MR. DRISCOLL: Dan, I remember a few years ago when sportswriters seemed to unite to turn America’s millionaire gridiron gladiators into victims. And increasingly, football players are, perhaps surprisingly, rather eager to embrace their newfound victimhood. Could you walk us through both the timetable and more importantly how this began to happen?
MR. FLYNN: Well, I think it began to happen for the reason of the NFL lawsuit, and part of that lawsuit came about because the NFL players have not had as much success at the bargaining table as the players in other major sports and this is particularly true of the benefits that they won for retirees. So what they didn’t win at the bargaining table, they’ve tried to win in the courtroom. And obviously with the $765 million settlement that they won from the NFL, from their head injury lawsuit, they’ve had a lot more success in the courtroom than in the bargaining room.
I think what probably most of the people listening to this podcast don’t understand is that about ten percent of the players suing the NFL never actually played in the NFL. These are guys who may have made a taxi squad or got cut during the preseason. But as far as playing in an official NFL game, their careers never got that far. And for me, it’s just a little bit difficult to buy into the idea that a guy who played in Pop Warner, or who played in high school, played in college, may have played in other pro leagues, got a head injury from the cup of coffee that they received in the NFL rather than from all of that head trauma in all of the other leagues.
Beyond that, you know, when the federal researchers looked at NFL veterans, they did find elevated rates of Alzheimer’s disease and ALS, but we’re talking about a dozen or so deaths from these maladies and less than one-half of one percent of all the players looked at. So it’s a very small number, but you have about three times the national average from these neurodegenerative diseases. And because these few players have died of these diseases or because there’s a few players that have killed themselves, there’s this perception amongst the public and amongst the players themselves that playing football somehow leads to these grisly deaths, when in fact it’s actually a very — very small number of players that have suffered these unfortunate events and we don’t know exactly if it’s football. But at least with the neurological diseases we can say that these football players have a slightly elevated rate or — have an elevated rate of these — these deaths.
MR. DRISCOLL: So how dangerous is football, both on the professional and the amateur level?
MR. FLYNN: Football is safer than it’s ever been, and I think that would shock a lot of people. Football hasn’t become particularly hard or particularly rough. I think society has become particularly soft. And if you look at the number of collision deaths a year in football, in the 1960s there were about twenty-three deaths a year from football hits. This peaked out in 1968; it was the deadliest year in football history. There were 36 players at all levels of competition who died from collisions. Last year there were two players who died from collisions. So to go from 36 deaths in 1968 to just two collision deaths last year, this should be a moment of triumph for football. This should be a time when football is patting itself on the back and saying, gee, what a great job we’ve done, you know, saving lives. But instead, it’s the exact opposite. In 1968, no one really noticed that 36 players died on the field because of what was going on in Vietnam, because of the bombings at home, because of the assassinations.
People have called the war on football, some of the reviewers of the book, have called the phenomenon, you know, a first-world problem. In other words that, you know, people — people that have real problems in other countries, you know, wouldn’t view this as a problem, but in America, things like football or sugary drinks — those are first-world problems.
And I think to put things in perspective, not only has football become a lot safer than the game used to be, but if you look at other activities that kids engage in — think of something like skateboarding. Thirty kids died from collisions skateboarding last year. There are about — or thirty skateboarders died from collisions — over forty skiers die of collisions every year, about 700 bicyclists die of collisions. You have seen that Joy Covey, the Amazon CFO, died from a bicycle accident last week. And although we may think of bicycling as a serene activity, you know, the fact of the matter is that it is a lot more dangerous than football. SUVs loom a lot more ominously than linebackers do. The playing surface, you know, asphalt versus grass, obviously favors football. And the speed at which a Schwinn goes vis-a-vis a free safety, you know, is — is much higher. And so even though we don’t think of — of bicycling or skateboarding or skiing as particularly dangerous, they’re exponentially more deadly than football is.
MR. DRISCOLL: You mentioned a few moments ago that society was becoming softer. Has parenting changed in recent years, and if so, how is that impacting the war on football?
MR. FLYNN: I think that parenting has changed dramatically. To me, if you look at something like technology, the Xbox has become sort of the de facto babysitter and perhaps it’s replaced TV in that regard, and the result of this is pretty clear. I mean, if you look at kids thirty years ago, you had about one out of every twenty who was obese; now it’s about one out of every five. There are a lot of ways to cure childhood obesity. One way that I think is particularly effective is football; to get a kid out on a football field and to have them running around.
One other concern that I have with regard to parenting involves the way we deal with little boys with their energy that they have. I have a seven-year-old boy. He’s got a lot of energy. You know, it takes me a Red Bull or a cigar or a Coke to just getting up and jumping around to get my energy level going. For my son, he doesn’t need that. Kids are just born with a lot of energy, and unfortunately for a lot of teachers that see little boys that have a lot of energy in school, rather than giving them a football, you know, they suggest giving them Ritalin or Adderall. And that’s what a lot of parents end up doing. So we have this epidemic of over-medicated kids. And I think rather than giving them the pill, we should think about giving them a football.
And then, on top of all this, we have probably the worst crisis in parenting which is fathers just ditching their responsibilities, or mothers raising kids without the dads in the home. And about forty percent of kids don’t have dads in the home. And I’m not suggesting that football is a replacement for a dad, but if you’re a ten-year-old boy in need of discipline, and you don’t have a dad in the home, one place you can find discipline is a football field. So a lot of what ails little boys, I think can be rectified or at least ameliorated out on a football field.
MR. DRISCOLL: The NFL players are also suing the equipment manufacturers, such as Riddell, the company that manufactures the bulk of NFL helmets. The NFL has deep pockets, but how many lawsuits can the ancillary industries that support it handle?
MR. FLYNN: I don’t think many. The evidence for that, if you look back to the 1970s, there were, I think, sixteen or seventeen helmet manufacturers. There’s about four right now. And what happened to those helmet manufacturers is that at a certain point in the early 1980s, the amount of money they were paying out in settlements eclipsed the amount of money they were taking in in sales. And so naturally, helmet manufacturers like Max Pro and Wilson and Bike went out of existence and that left just a handful of helmet manufacturers to make football helmets.
I think probably even more egregious than the suit against the NFL — more frivolous than the suit against the NFL — is the suit against Riddell. Because at least 90 percent of the players suing the NFL actually played in an NFL game even if some of them were backup quarterbacks and kickers who played in five games or replacement players from the 1987 strike. At least they can say ninety percent of those players played, you know, at least a game in the NFL. There are a great number of players suing Riddell who didn’t wear Riddell helmets or at least didn’t wear them consistently.
If you look at a guy like Ken Stabler, the year that he won the Super Bowl for the Oakland Raiders, he showed up the early part of the following season on the cover of Sports Illustrated wearing a Wilson helmet. He’s suing Riddell right now. If you look at Karl Mecklenburg’s Topps card from the mid-80s, his football card, he’s wearing a Bike helmet, a Billy Kelley manufactured helmet. He’s suing Riddell now. If you look at Tony Dorsett, Tony Dorsett is a guy who wore MacGregor and I think perhaps Rawlings. I mean, he wore a number of helmets in his career. I don’t see him wearing a Riddell helmet, and perhaps at some point he did, but I see him wearing other helmets in the literature of the times and yet he’s suing Riddell. I don’t see how all these guys can justify suing Riddell when they weren’t wearing Riddell helmets for any period of time during their career.
So when you talk about Riddell or Rawlings or Schutt or Xenith or any of the people that are making helmets now, I think that’s what’s happening has already happened to them, the decimation — more than decimation — of their industry by these frivolous lawsuits in the 70s. That’s almost a microcosm of what could happen for football, that one lawsuit could get to another lawsuit and all of a sudden you have, you know, very litigious culture going after, not just the NFL, but after the NCAA, going after high schools, going after local Pop Warner leagues, and this could get very ugly very quickly and football would become cost prohibitive because of the legal settlements and the insurance premiums that they pay out.
And so I think anyone wanting to see the future of football in ligation would be wise to look at what happened to the helmet industry in the 1970s and ironically what those legal suits against the helmet manufacturers did was essentially hurt the development of helmets because these companies had to pay all this money to lawyers, but they didn’t have a whole lot of money to develop new helmets. So it wasn’t until about a decade ago that we had some real development in helmets from the 1970s to the early part of the 21st century.
MR. DRISCOLL: Dan, a few moments ago, you mentioned the benefits that playing football provides kids. Do we know what the average lifespan is for football players, compared with those who haven’t played sports?
MR. FLYNN: Yeah, you know, I mentioned earlier this federal study where there is evidence of elevated rates of certain neurological diseases, particularly for skill position players. Linemen don’t seem to be as affected by this. But what happened was, there was a rumor, an urban myth going around, that football players, professional football players, lived about twenty years shorter than the average American male. That they lived into their fifties, but the average American male lived — lives into his seventies, well — well into his seventies.
And based on these rumors — and everyone from George Will to Malcolm Gladwell has fallen for this and has written this as fact — based on these rumors, the NFL Players Association petitioned The National Institutes for Occupational Safety and Health to do a mortality study on their industry. And usually mortality studies, they might be done on construction workers or on coal miners, but in this case it was done on NFL players. And the federal scientists looked at every NFL player who played between 1959 and 1988. All of the pension-vested players, all the guys who were eligible for a pension, so people who played in at least five seasons or more during those, you know, thirty or so seasons.
And what they found was really shocking to the players association. NFL players did not have decreased mortality rates; in fact, they outlived their peers in society rather dramatically. Their rates of cancer, of heart disease, of respiratory illness was well below what was expected. And I think there is sort of a “duh” quality to the study because if you think about it, if you run around a practice field and you’re jumping up and down and wrestling on the line of scrimmage, and you’re doing this for five days a week, in the years you’re when you’re a kid and when you’re an adult, you’re getting the kind of exercise that normal Americans don’t get. You’re getting a real cardiovascular workout. Your diet is probably, you know, outstanding. You’re probably not smoking cigarettes when you’re not playing football. You have access to great healthcare. So I don’t know why so many people were surprised that NFL players actually outlived their peers. But this is an idea, one of these urban myths, that really has taken on a life of its own and suckered some of the biggest names that are writing today. People like Elsie Granderson and Malcolm Gladwell and George Will all falling for this myth.
And I think that probably the most surprising part of this mortality study is that not only were NFL players outliving their peers, but the suicide rate amongst American males was much higher than it is amongst NFL players. And just a couple of days ago another NFL player — a guy who played three years in league — committed suicide and the impression formed from this, because every news outlet in the country is going to pick up on this, is that NFL players are killing themselves at astronomical levels. The reality is that the peer group, the male peer group in society, they’re killing themselves at two-and-half-times the rate of NFL players. And so we hear about this player, Mr. Oliver, who played on the San Diego Chargers for three years, but if you look at a guy like Enzo Hernandez, who played about a decade in major league baseball for the San Diego Padres, he killed himself less than a year ago. He didn’t even get an obituary in his adopted hometown paper; the San Diego Union Tribune didn’t even give this guy an obituary. So when a baseball player kills himself there’s no huge uproar about it unless he’s really famous. When a football player kills himself, even if he’s a really obscure football player, it’s going to be in every paper in the country. It’s going to be in every news outlet in the country. So there is this insane impression formed that football players are killing themselves left and right and that’s just not happening. The facts don’t bear that out.
MR. DRISCOLL: Dan, I wanted to follow up on the first question I asked you. Particularly given how much financial trouble newspapers have been in recently, and how they’ve cut back on all sorts of journalistic coverage, particularly coverage of entertainment, why would professional sportswriters want to destroy the game that they cover for a living? And am I incorrect in my assumption, because that’s certainly how it appears at times to me.
MR. FLYNN: Yeah, I think that there’s a lot of sports writers who are less interested in what goes on, on the court, on the field, on the ice, and they’re more interested in sports as sort of a sociological phenomenon. And of course, the NFL, which is approaching ten billion dollars in revenue this year, gives them almost sort of a piñata-sized sociological phenomenon to kind of beat upon. And I think they have a very adversarial relationship with that big corporate entity known as the NFL, and so anything that kind of knocks it, they’re game to go after. I think more so than, you know, biting the hand that feeds them — journalists, I don’t think, look at it that way. I think most journalists want a good story and this NFL story with concussions and head injuries, it’s sort of the gift that keeps on giving. It keeps supplying stories to sports writers. I think the problem is that a lot of the stories aren’t true.
Earlier I gave you an example [of] measurable statistics on how the game is safer, which is that the number of deaths on the field every year due to collisions; that’s measurable. A lot of times, what you hear sports writers talk about are concussions or something called CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Those are not measurables; those are just speculation. You had last year one academic article claimed that there are 300,000 sports-related concussions every year. Another academic article claimed there are 3.8 million sports related concussions every year. In other words, the people who were studying concussions the most intensely don’t have a clue how many concussions occur every year in sports. They don’t have a clue.
With regard to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, I think what a lot of your listeners probably don’t understand is that there hasn’t even been a scientific randomized study on CTE and contact sports at this point. There hasn’t been a longitudinal study, which would take a lot more time. All there have been are individual case studies from brains donated because the families of these deceased former players believed that their brains were damaged. And lo and behold, when scientists looked at these brains suspected of being damaged, they found damage. This is what’s called in science a selection bias. And when you read the medical literature talking about CTE, they admit readily that there is a selection bias; that there has been no randomized study so far. But when you hear these very same groups talking in the media, they speak in very different tones and act as though their speculation is not speculation at all but it’s science.
And one of the things that’s been gratifying for me to see over the course of the last summer, is you’ve had three prominent academic journals come out with articles essentially scolding the public and getting out there and saying there has never been a scientific connection drawn between CTE and contact sports, and there has never been any scientific connection drawn between CTE and concussions. And they, basically saying that the media has gotten way ahead of this issue.
Last year, November, the International Conference on Concussion in Sports, the biggest names in brain science and neurology, people that are looking at sports concussions, they put out a consensus statement and they saw fit to put out in their consensus statement the reality that there has never been, any scientific evidence that connects concussions with CTE or contact sports with CTE or CTE with suicide. So there has been a huge backlash in the scientific community against scientists trying to go out there in the media and pass off speculation for science. It may be one day in the future that we find out that there is a connection between contact sports and CTE, but we should wait for the science to come in on that rather than predict what the science will be.
MR. DRISCOLL: So with all of this going on in the background, how many years left does football have both on the pro and amateur level?
MR. FLYNN: I think for people seeing the title of my book, The War on Football, there are certain people that process football as a spectator sport, and they probably get a chuckle because they think, well, the NFL has the highest ratings on television. Sunday night football is the number one show on TV, how could any war on football succeed? Well I agree, football is a spectator sport. It’s probably never been better. That’s our national obsession is watching the NFL and to a lesser extent watching college football. Football as a participation sport is really hurting. Last year, youth football lost six percent of its player population. I hung around with a lot of Pop Warner teams and a lot of them struggle to have a scrub squad to shine up their starters for practice. A lot of them struggle to field the requisite number of players that the rules require to a play a game on Sunday. If youth football loses six percent of its player population next season and the season after, there’s not going to be any youth football league — there’s not going to any youth football left in America. At the high school level, the story is similar. It’s not as extreme. Football in high school is still the most popular team sport, but last season, for the first time in almost twenty years, football lost players at the high school level.
We’re seeing, just anecdotally, around the country a lot of very disturbing trends. You had about a week and a half ago the principal of the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey — a very tony prep school in New Jersey — kill off what was the oldest tackle football league in America; an intramural football league amongst the houses at Lawrenceville Prep. And now it’s a flag football league. And I think for a lot of fans of football that is the nightmare scenario. That one day there going to wake up and the players out in the field aren’t wearing pads anymore; they’re wearing flags.
MR. DRISCOLL: Well if you had to put a timetable on it, what would your best guess as to when we could conceivably see the end of football — or at least the end of football as a contact sport?
MR. FLYNN: Yeah, the reason I wrote this book is to avert that from happening and I hope that parents will start… You know, football is a rough game. If there is a parent out there that doesn’t want their kid playing football, I’m not going to knock that parent. I just don’t like the idea of society guilt-tripping those parents that sign their nine, ten, eleven-year-old kid up for football, because I think football is a great game; it’s a game that builds young bodies, but more so than that, it’s a game that builds character. And everyone who’s played the game of football comes away with the same observation. And that is that on almost every play in a football game, there’s some kid who gets knocked on his butt, and that kid either gets up and fights, or he worms away off onto the sidelines. And to me, that is a huge metaphor for life. And in that way and so many other ways, football offers a lot of life lessons to kids. And I think we would be doing a terrible disservice to posterity if we were to deny them the game of football, this great American game that kids have been playing in this country for almost a century and a half.
Worst case scenario, I think, in 25, 50 years football still exists, but it’s marginalized the way boxing is. Boxing used to be a very mainstream sport and I think if people looked at Floyd Mayweather, Jr.’s paycheck they’d probably question whether it is a marginalized sport, because he’s the highest paid athlete, but boxing doesn’t have the central place in American pop culture that it did, say, in the 1940s and ’50s. I think there are even partisans of boxing would admit that, and that could happen with football. Football could still be very popular as a spectator sport, but as a sport that kids play, you could see that football sort of dying off.
The whole point in writing The War on Football is to arm parents and others with the facts so that that day never comes. Football is a great game and that’s why I wrote The War on Football, and I want parents to be equipped with facts so that they can form decisions about whether they want to allow their kid to play football or not. I think right now they’re being guilt-tripped out of signing their kid up for football because of this national hysteria.
I liken it to the shark attack stories that we see at the end of every summer. You remember when we were kids, there were stories about the killer bees coming to America and killing people. That never happened. There was the big Y2K story. That proved to be a dud. There’s certain media stories that take on a life of their own and when we find out a few years down the line that they didn’t really have a whole lot of basis in fact. And I think the war on football is one of those stories.
MR. DRISCOLL: This is Ed Driscoll, and we’ve been talking with Daniel J. Flynn, of Flynn Files.com, the author of The War On Football: Saving America’s Game. It’s published by Regnery, and available from Amazon.com and your local bookstore. And Dan, thank you once again for stopping by PJ Media.com today.
MR. FLYNN: Thank you so much, Ed.
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