Interviewing Daniel Flynn About “The War on Football: Saving America’s Game”

What follows is the transcript of a conversation I had with Daniel Flynn about his new book, The War on Football: Saving America’s Game . Here’s the slightly edited transcript of our conversation.

Here’s a quote in your pitch about the book, “Everything they say about football is wrong. Football players don’t commit suicide at elevated levels, die younger than their peers, or suffer disproportionately from heart disease. In fact professional players live longer, healthier lives than American men in general”. That’s probably different from what most people have heard. Can you briefly run down the numbers and explain to people how this can be?

There was a widespread belief in the popular press in reading columns by people like George Will that football players die decades before the average American men. Because of the suspicion the NFL Players Association petitioned the federal government to do a mortality study on NFL players. So the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health did a study on every player who played between 1959 and 1988, every player who played five or more seasons, : pension vested players.

What they found was really shocking to some of the folks at the Players Association. They expected to find an 18 percent death rate and instead they found a 10 percent death rate. So the players are living longer than their peers in society. Their rates of heart disease, their rates of cancer and respiratory illness are dramatically reduced and I think what shocked people the most is that the rate of suicide is 2 1/2 times greater amongst the players’ peers in society than it is amongst the players themselves.

There was a New York Times column late last year that claims that football players kill themselves at six times the national rate and that’s a very widely spread statistic. You can read it in Tony Dungy’s recent book. There’s a biography of Tom Brady that repeats this, a biography of Walter Payton — it was in the San Diego Union Tribune. The idea that football players kill themselves at six times the national rate is all over the place.

The problem is that it’s not true. So we hear a lot every time a football player kills himself — it’s constantly in the media. But there’s kind of a shark attack phenomenon or a Y2K bug or the killer bee story that was around when we were kids. It’s one of these stories that the media loved, but it doesn’t reflect what the real facts on the ground are.

The new thing everyone is talking about is a long term damage caused by concussions for football players. Do you think that’s overblown?

You know Robert Cantu from Boston University is one of the main guys pushing this. In his recent book, Concussions and our Kids, he says it’s exaggerated. So if the scientists pushing this media narrative the hardest like Robert Cantu saying it’s overblown, then I think we can say it is safe to say it is overblown.

It’s another thing to say that we know something is true and with regard to concussions when we may have a lot of suspicions, but we don’t know a whole lot. Just to give you one example, last year one academic article claimed that there were 300,000 sports related concussions every year. Another one that I read said that there were up to 3.8 million sports related concussions a year. So, if the doctors can’t get concussion counts right within a factor of 12, if their counts are all over the place, it gives you an indication of how little we know about not only concussions, but chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the degenerate brain condition that just within the last decade has been found within some football players.

There hasn’t even been any randomized study of CTE in football players or people in contact sports. So we don’t even have a study. We just have some autopsies of some players’ brains that were donated to these university brain banks because the families of these players suspected them of having brain damage prior to their deaths. So, there’s a selection bias there and there’s no randomization. So, it’s very hard for us to say we know X or we know Y when they haven’t even done the science on it.

This statement kind of surprised me, “A half century ago collisions regularly killed two to three dozen players every year. Our boys’ game plays much safer than our dads’ ones did.” What do you think this says about our culture good and bad?

I think it says that football hasn’t grown especially hard, society has grown really, really soft and football clashes with our culture that is obese and passive/aggressive. It’s an indoor, antiseptic culture and football goes against all of that. Football is a muddy, rough game where the primary activity is physical violence and because it’s so different from our culture, that’s why we love football. But it’s a double-edged sword. It’s also the reason why there are so many people that have it in for football.

If you look at the reality of football deaths, you know 1968 was one of the most violent years in American history. There were bombings and assassinations and I think it was the year of peak casualties in Vietnam for American soldiers. That year, there were 36 collision deaths on American football fields. Last year there were two. So to me that demonstrates measurable progress. When people are talking about concussions or CTE’s, those aren’t measurable because we don’t have statistics on any of that. We do have statistics on fatalities and catastrophic injuries and by all accounts they’ve gone down dramatically.

We constantly hear that the players are bigger and they’re faster and they’re stronger and intuitively we think, “Well, that means the game is deadlier,” but the reality is the game isn’t deadlier. It’s much safer. You know more kids died last year on American football fields getting struck by lightning than getting struck by other players. I think that puts things really into perspective for people that are fans of the game.

Final question: Do you think the attack on football is a symptom of an over-feminized society?

I don’t know if I’d say over-feminized. What I would say is there’s a crisis among American boys now where they’re placed in front of screens and they play video games, they do Facebook, but you rarely see them outdoors playing stickball, touch football, hide-n-go seek, any of the type of games that we would play with neighborhood kids when we were young. That’s something that has gone missing in American culture.

To me football is an antidote to a lot of what ails us, particularly the fact that you have boys in need of discipline who don’t have fathers. They could find that on a football field certainly. You have an obesity rate amongst American teens. One in five teenagers is obese, one in five teenagers. It used to be about one in twenty — thirty or forty years ago. You can find fitness on a football field.

There are also kids that stay perpetually in adolescence. To me, this is one of the primary lessons that you learn from the game of football — : to get up after you get knocked down. You see that happen on just about every play and getting up after you get knocked down. To me that’s a metaphor for life. There are so many different lessons that football teaches young boys as preparation for the real world. I don’t know of any other game that does such a good job preparing its players for the real world as football does. I think football is one way that can help these boys learn to become men and not to stay boys.

Outstanding, Daniel. I appreciate it.

OK, thanks a lot.

Once again, Daniel Flynn’s new book is called, The War on Football: Saving America’s Game .

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