Daniel Flynn is a pop culture writer for American Spectator and has authored five books on a variety of subjects. His latest book, "War on Football," takes a different look at the controversy over football participation from youth to the pros.
In "War on Football," Flynn writes that the game has evolved to be much safer than people think, and the controversy over its dangers compares badly to the risks involved in many other sports.
Flynn talked to NFL Evolution contributing editor Bill Bradley about the book and the reaction it has received since it was published in August.
What led you to write about the positive aspects of football with the concern about the sport's safety being a hot topic?
In May of 2012, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health study about player mortality came out. That study reported that football players actually outlived their peers in society. Based on that, I wrote an article in the publication called "The American Spectator," essentially saying that football is good for you. There are always risks to every human endeavor, but on the whole, people who play football are going to walk away from the game healthier than people who sit up in the stands and watch it. Based on the article I wrote, a publishing company asked me if I wanted to turn this article into a book, and I jumped at the chance. I spent a year basically hanging around with football teams. It was a real pleasure to hang out with Pop Warner kids, with high school football players, with women's professional football players. I was disconnected from the game from when I played in high school. To be reconnected like that, it was a great feeling.
What did you learn in writing the book and what process did you go through in writing it?
I started writing it last August, and I finished sometime in June. The process was just full immersion. It included things like going to the archives of Yale University to look at the papers of Walter Camp, who a lot of people consider the founding father of football. That was that historical angle. It was immersion in academic journals. ... I read a lot of the medical literature on concussions, on chronic traumatic encephalopathy. That was the scientific angle. And there was the journalistic angle where I was just kind of being a fly on the wall at various football squads. I went and hung out with these football players looking for a story. But if you hang out with a football team long enough, the story is going to find you. That's what ultimately happened. The book covers a whole lot of different fields -- history, science, literature, even current events. It's sort of a mish-mash of all that, and I really had to immerse myself in the topic for a year to really come out with the book.
One of the analogies debunked in the book is the comparison of football to big tobacco. Could you explain that?
You can't escape that analogy. There's sort of this analogy that compares football to smoking. And I think it's a rather lazy analogy. More so than it being lazy, the big problem is that it is complete hyperbole. Last year, smoking killed about 5 million people across the planet. At the same time, there were two football players -- both in adult leagues -- who died from football hits. And so the idea that you're going to take a sport with 4 million participants and say that because two players died from hits, equate that with smoking, something that killed 5 million people, that's completely insane. You're not dealing with reason there. I think what a lot of the anti-football folks overlook is not only how safe the game has become, but how safe it is compared to what it once was. In the 1960s, it was normal for 25 guys a year to die from football hits. And now the number is under four a year. That's improvement. Anyone can do that kind of math and see that if you go from 36 deaths in a single year in 1968 from football collisions down to two last year, that's an amazing improvement over a short period of time that I don't think the game of football gets a whole lot of credit for.
When the book was published, it received some mixed reviews. How did you handle that?
I don't care about the way people review the book. I think people come into books with preconceived notions, particularly a book like this one that is on a controversial topic. I think up until the point that my book came out, people in the media were speaking with one voice on football and acting as though it was some kind of a public health concern. So far as I can tell, my book is the only voice that has offered some pushback on this and has basically said the emperor has no clothes on this. The argument that football is somehow bad for you runs in the face of science. And the science shows that people who play football at the highest level -- in the National Football League -- tend to live longer, they have lower rates of cancer and they have lower rates of heart disease. They even have lower rates of suicide. On top of this, football has gotten a lot safer than it used to be, and it's a heck of a lot safer than a lot of other childhood activities that parents allow their kids to engage in even without a hint of hesitation. One such activity is skateboarding. Last year, there were 30 skateboarders who died in collisions versus two football players who died from collisions. There's no law against skateboarding. Nobody's trying to say let's abolish skateboarding. But yet there is this fervor over a game that's killed just two players. Skateboarding has killed 15 times the amount as football hits did. I think that people have lost their sense of perspective. What I try to do in the book is give them some perspective and let them know that in the grand scheme of things -- in all of the things their kids could be engaged in -- there could be a heck of a lot worse things they could be doing than playing football.
What do you say to parents who are leery about letting their kids play football?
I think parents should let their decisions be governed by facts and not fear. That's what I try to do in the book, present a series of facts. And based on those facts, parents can either allow their kids to play football or do not allow them to step foot on a field. Let's face it: Before this controversy arose, there were a lot of parents who were very skittish about the idea of having their kids play football. Football is not for every kid. It's a rough game. It's OK if a kid doesn't want to play. But what this book tries to do is say, "It's OK if a kid does want to play." If your kid wants to play, let them play. There are a lot of activities that your kid could be engaged in that are far more dangerous than football. Football is good for you. It's a game that not only builds bodies but builds character. I think a common observation of people who have played the game is that on just about every play, a kid gets knocked down on the football field. Then they either get up or they stay on the ground. To me, that's a metaphor for life. Football really is a great teacher of life lessons.
How do safety movements like USA Football's Heads Up Football fit into your findings?
I think that's great. We talked earlier about the improvements in football and going from 36 collision deaths in 1968 to two last year. One of the reasons why the safety has improved so dramatically over such a short period of time is because of the change that is inherent with the game. I know there are some people who call themselves football purists out there, but I think that's a contradiction in terms. Football always has been about roughness, and it's always been about change. When people started playing football, they used a round ball like a soccer ball and they kicked it in a goal, just like soccer for points. And very shortly thereafter, they thought it would be more exciting to kick the ball above the goal, so they added goalposts. And then they changed from that round ball to an elongated ball. After the 1905 season that was so deadly, they had to have President (Theodore) Roosevelt intervening and holding a White House summit on football. After that, you had the introduction of the forward pass and the creation of the neutral zone. Football is always changing. That's my point. There's always developments in the rules, and oftentimes, these developments have to do with the game's safety. We are very fortunate to live in an era where not only have the rules improved for players -- the introduction of the rule in the early 1970s prohibiting spearing was a huge improvement -- but also the equipment has improved. Let me just give you an example of what I'm talking about. I was in the Marines for eight years, and for all eight years, I was issued a helmet that was a web-suspension helmet. In other words, there was a piece of fabric that was keeping my head from hitting the hard shell of the helmet. That was developed in World War II by Mr. Riddell, who ran the Riddell helmet corporation. It was a technology designed for football helmets, but it was used by the military. And the military used it all the way into the 21st century. Football ditched that technology in the 1970s. In other words, we have better equipment in this country for football players than we do for soldiers and Marines. I don't know if the average fan understands that or if the average critic of football understands how good some of the equipment that we have is. It is better in football than it is for the people defending our country.
So you believe football has spurred change in technology as well?
Yes. Here's the difference with football and other sports. If you would take a guy who played baseball 100 years ago, like Ty Cobb or Babe Ruth, and put him in a baseball game today, there would be no difference in the rules other than the designated hitter. With football, if you took someone from 100 years ago, they wouldn't know where to begin because the rules are constantly changing in football. These other games like baseball and soccer, they're great games. But they're static games. The rules stay the same. Football is an evolutionary game, and it continues to evolve today.
Do you buy into the football fans who are irritated by recent safety changes?
Some people say, "I'm a football traditionalist," because they don't like the new NCAA rules that will kick players out for targeting a defenseless receiver. To me, that's just keeping with the long evolution and progress in football. That's not a game-changer. It's not going to change the game of football that you're kicking out a cornerback for hitting a defenseless receiver. It's certainly not a change on the scale of the introduction of the forward pass, for instance, or the elimination of offensive forward motion before the snap. Those were huge advances. Those were things that really changed the game of football. But the fact that this year you're going to have running backs being penalized for lowering their heads into defensive players, that doesn't really inherently change the game of football. It's just a minor rule modification. Those are changes that make the game safer. As fans, we should be embracing them because they're going to perpetuate the game. The one nightmare scenario that a lot of fans have is one day they're going to wake up and the players are wearing flags instead of pads. To me, that would be a change too far. But none of the recent changes even approach anything like that. We're a long ways from that.
Do you then not agree with neurologist Dr. Robert Cantu's belief that kids below high school age should not play tackle football?
Football is a kids' game. When people say they want to ban kids from playing football, it's really a ban on the game of football. That's because of the 4 million people who play tackle football in America, less than 5 percent of them can legally buy alcohol or legally vote. But almost all of them are 18 or under. They play at the high school level or the youth football league. The idea that we're going to ban kids from playing football, that's taking away from almost everyone who is involved in football. The leagues that we watch are very giant men. But there are very few men who can play in those leagues. The players who participate are leagues of little boys. When people worry about the survival of football, I think as a spectator sport, it's doing fine. "Sunday Night Football" is the highest-rated show on television. I'm sure (Thursday night's game) between the Patriots and the Jets did gangbusters for the NFL Network. But football as a participatory sport is not doing fine, where people play the game rather than watch it, is not doing fine. Youth football lost 6 percent of its player population last year, and if they continue to lose 6 percent of their player population every year, there's not going to be any youth football left. So if they kill youth football by having an outright ban, as Dr. Cantu has called for, or just guilt-tripping parents from allowing their kids to play, the effect is the same. It's still going to be the death of youth football in America. I think that would be an absolutely horrible legacy.