Flynn, Daniel J. The War on Football: Saving America’s Game. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, 2013. 1-172. Notes and index. $27.95 cloth.
Reviewed by Russ Crawford
In The War on Football, Daniel Flynn saw a concerted attack on the game by those who saw it as too violent and dangerous. The reasons he provides for this include mounting concerns over the danger of concussions, the increasing incidence of helicopter parenting, and the growing softness of American children. Flynn also argued that larger cultural forces were at work.
The game finds itself running against cultural currents, the intellectual’s aversion to ‘dumb’ physical combat being one such headwind. Increasingly, we show ourselves cowardly in the face of danger, litigious in response to injury, lazy when the situation demands exertion, and offended if pushed disciplined, or assigned grunt work without any glory. With school districts banning Nerf-ball dodgeball and schoolyard tag for the havoc they inflict upon young psyches, and parental wardens locking their children indoors lest the monsters of suburban neighborhoods gobble them up, nobody can say that the War on Football started by way of a Pearl Harbor sneak attack. We have seen the future, and it is bubble wrapped. (p.2)
I am not sure that Jeremiah himself could have constructed such a bleak picture of football’s current state and future prospects.
The War on Football is not however, merely a recitation of how critics are attempting to damage the game, as in “Football is the Smoking,” – the title of Chapter 1. Flynn also mounts a positive defense for football. Throughout the work, he mixes analysis of the attacks on football with stories of players and coaches who love the game, along with their testimonies of how positive the game has been for them. Briannah Gallo provides the first testimonial in Chapter 2. At the time of publication, Gallo played football for the Boston Militia of the Women’s Football Alliance, and she is still listed on the roster of the Boston Renegades (the team changed ownership and names in 2015). Flynn used the story of a concussion Gallo suffered in 2009 to introduce the subject of those injuries and how concern over head injuries has captured the narrative around football, and how that concern has spawned an industry made up of those who diagnose concussions along with many who have made their fortunes selling remedies. In addition to discussing the researchers who have become relatively famous, including Bennet Omalu, played by Will Smith in the 2015 movie Concussion, Flynn paid particular attention to Mark Lovell. Lovell has published numerous scholarly articles on concussion science in respectable journals such as the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine. While publishing these refereed articles, Lovell was also the CEO of ImPACT, an evaluation that employs baseline testing to diagnose concussions. ImPACT was used by several professional leagues at the time, and most of Lovell’s journal articles extolled the utility of the protocol, which raised questions about the conflict of interest implicit in a researcher using academic journals to extol the virtues of a product that he then sold. Although Flynn recognized that concussions are a real danger, the chapter also discussed how the science on concussions is far from settled, and argued that much of what the public hears about brain injuries is informed more by self interest among the researchers, than by clinical study.
Chapter two began with the story of Al Williams, a former NFL wide receiver who joined the class action lawsuit against the NFL, claiming that the league hid information about concussions. Williams played for the USFL before entering the NFL during the 1987 strike as a replacement player. Flynn told of how, once the strike ended with an NFLPA loss, the regular players discriminated against the so-called “scabs” that helped the owners break the strike. That discrimination did not extend to keeping them out of the lawsuit, however, and Flynn made the point that many of the players who were a part of the suit had less of a case than Williams. Many had hardly played a down in the NFL, but were set to share in the largess. Flynn referenced Rod Tidwell, the character played by Cuba Gooding Jr. in the 1996 movie Jerry Maguire, who constantly shouted “Show me the money!” to sum up the attitude of the former players suing the NFL.
Chapter 3 demonstrated that football has always faced threats to its existence. Flynn called this chapter “2013 is the New 1905,” that referred to one of the first crises the sport faced over its’ danger. Twenty nine players died as a result of contact injuries during the 1905-1906 seasons, and this prompted many to renew calls for abolition of the game that had begun as early as 1894. Interestingly, Flynn quotes research published in Death at the Ballpark: A Comprehensive Study of Game Related Fatalities, 1862-2007 (2009) by Robert M. Gorman and David Weeks. Gorman and Weeks found that during the same time span, thirty people died playing or watching baseball. While Death at the Ballpark included deaths from lightning strikes, bleacher collapses, as well as deaths that occurred during play, Flynn made the point that even though baseball was as deadly in that period, no one called for the sport to be banned. Biographical stories in this chapter include Walter Camp, who is credited with “inventing” football, and Bill Reid, who coached Harvard, but was unable to defeat Camp.
In Chapter 5, Flynn used statistics to demonstrate that modern football, which usually has single digit deaths per year, is much safer than many other sports. For instance, around seven hundred Americans die in bicycle accidents each year. In 2011, forty-two skateboarders died practicing their sport, and around 3,500 swimmers drown each year. Innovations in equipment and coaching have increased the safety of football immensely, but as Flynn puts it “Oddly enough, while its risks have decreased, the uproar over its risks has amplified.” (p.87) The chapter rebuts the idea that former NFL players die earlier than the general population. Flynn argued that much of this narrative was created by Ron Mix and Len Teeuws, former players who became a workman’s compensation attorney and an insurance agent, respectively, furthering his argument that much of our concern over the danger of football originates from actors motivated by self-interest. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health conducted research in 1994 and again in 2012, found that former players were more healthy than the general population in most categories other than Alzheimer’s, ALS (Lou Gehrig disease), and Parkinson’s, which do show some elevated risk.
Chapter 7 told the story of several young men who played high school football in Shrewsbury, MA. For brothers Andrew and John Leonminster, and Andrew Sullivan, the meaning of football transcends sport. It helped them overcome difficulties in their lives and gave them focus. This chapter provides a full-throated defense of the qualities that playing football provides for the nation’s youth.
Chapter 8 argued that those youth were something of an endangered species. In “The Abolition of Boys” Flynn argued that contemporary boys are being denied the chance to grow into men. We are increasingly medicating the boyishness out of our boys, and the effort to curtail football seeks to remove another area where boys can learn to be men. An interesting part of this chapter is discussion of a letter that the celebrated artist Frederick Remington wrote to Walter Camp in 1894. Remington, who played tackle for Yale with Camp, hoped that the crisis du jour – the furor over the Hampden Park Blood Bath, would not cause large changes to the game. “I do not believe in all this namby-pamby talk, and hope the game will not be emasculated and robbed of its heroic qualities, which is its charm and its distinctive quality.” (p.144)
In Chapter 9, Flynn used examples such as the New Orleans Saints winning the 2009 Super Bowl in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the fascination that many presidents of both political parties from Roosevelt on have had for the game, and football’s record of racial integration to argue that “Football Brings Us Together,” the title of the chapter. The author foreshadowed what might one day be remembered as the Great Football War of 2017 by writing that “Politics tears us apart.” Recent data published by the Winston Group indicates that perceptions of the NFL brand has taken a large hit, and that it is now the least popular brand among the major American sports. This is likely due to a combination of factors, but most probably driven by the constant protests during the National Anthem. Various polls have found similar results, and it is ironic that Flynn, who writes for conservative outlets, probably did not see the damage to professional football’s image coming from the right as well as the left.
Chapter 10, It’s Okay to Watch” explored the angst that many sportswriters began demonstrating over whether they could continue to watch football. His assertion that “Football brings a divided America together” (p.170) may be a statement, however, that is no longer true. His recommendation is that “Don’t like football? Don’t watch. But don’t tell other people they can’t play or watch. Football is America’s game, and playing and watching remains millions of Americans’ idea of the pursuit of happiness. Move on to the next witch hunt.” (p.171)
The War on Football is an easy read. Flynn maintains a football-like pace – short bursts of prose separated into sections, with section changes serving as a huddle-like break. His use of biographical sketches makes the work engaging on a personal level. I particularly sought this out since it is one of the few works on football that includes material on women playing football. Flynn likely goes too far in his jeremiad though. As he demonstrated, there has always been a war on football, and still the game remains. He argued persuasively that unlike soccer, which essentially has the same rules as the sport had in the nineteenth century, football has evolved over time. The game has become increasingly safe and new rules and technology will likely continue to improve that safety.
The book would be a good read to pair with more critical works in a sport history course, and is an enjoyable read on its own for football fans. Though Flynn writes from the perspective of the political right, his work is not overtly political. In my research on women’s football, the players I have spoken to, acknowledge that there is a danger in football, but that its positives outweigh the potential negatives. I would argue that might be good for us to take a time out during our current football war, and remember that football is a sport that provides a great deal of pleasure for both players and fans, and will likely continue to do so.
Russ Crawford is an Associate Professor of History at Ohio Northern University in Ada, Ohio. His area of specialty is sport history, with an evolving focus on nontraditional practitioners of gridiron football. Along with several chapters on sport history, he has published one book, The Use of Sport to Promote the American Way of Life During the Cold War: Cultural Propaganda, 1946-1963, and has another, Le Football: The History of American Football in France that will be published by the University of Nebraska Press in August of 2016.