War On Football Deconstructed

, Joe Daly, Leave a comment

Football is everywhere in the news today. PBS recently released a documentary entitled “League of Denial” which took the NFL to task for its supposed attempts at covering up medical issues that NFL players were being afflicted with after their time in the league.

Dan Flynn, author of the book, The War on Football: Saving America’s Game, dissected the lawsuit and the controversies surrounding the game, in remarks given at Accuracy in Academia’s author’s night on November 6, 2013. Flynn previously served as executive director of AIA.

The player’s lawsuit against the NFL has been highly publicized this year, but for Flynn this is more of a ploy than a real cry for help. For many of the plaintiffs, “this is litigation lottery stuff,” Flynn observed. Flynn noted that 10% of the players in the lawsuit never played a down in an NFL game. “You got brain damage from that cup of Coffee in the NFL?,” he asked in the speech to Capitol Hill interns.

One of the major issues is CTE, or Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, also known as traumas or head traumas, which is degenerative brain disease that has been known to have affected boxers, and is now being discovered in some retired football players.  “A cause and effect relationship has not as yet been demonstrated between CTE and concussions or exposure to contact sports,” said Flynn. He went on to say that there has been no truly scientific study on the causes and effects of playing football, such as the study that linked tobacco use to cancer in the 1960s.

Conversely, a National Institutes of Health study found that “the speculation that repeated concussion or sub concussive impacts cause CTE remains unproven. The extent to which age-related changes, psychiatric or mental health illness, alcohol/drug use or coexisting dementing illnesses contribute to this process is largely unaccounted for in the published literature.”

So why is everyone blaming football? As noted before, “A League of Denial” placed most of the blame on the NFL. Mr. Flynn had some problems with the documentary. “You go 72 minutes into League of Denial before you hear a single voice critical of the overall thesis.”

On the flip side, Flynn brought up a 2012 CDC study of 3,439 retired players from the NFL from the 1959 to the 1988 seasons. The study came up with some surprising statistics. “Players had a much lower overall rate of death compared to men in the general U.S. population of similar age and racial mix. On average, NFL players are actually living longer than the average American male. Out of the 3,439 players in the study, 334 were deceased. Based on estimates from the general population, we anticipated roughly 625 deaths.”  Essentially NFL players have a longer life expectancy than the average male.

One of the big issues for Flynn is the differentiation between the NFL, and youth up to high school leagues. “There’s no scientific evidence that you’re going to have cognitive issues if you’re an average high school football player.” He cites  a study done by the Mayo Clinic that said after studying all football playing male students plus a control group from all high schools in Rochester, Minnesota from 1946-1956 there was ”…no increased risk of dementia, PD, or ALS among the 438 football players compared with the 140 non–football-playing male classmates.” The study goes on to conclude “Our findings suggest that high school students who played American football from 1946 to 1956 did not have an increased risk of later developing dementia, PD, or ALS compared with non–football-playing high school males, despite poorer equipment and less regard for concussions compared with today and no rules prohibiting head-first tackling (spearing).”

What does the future look like for football? Football has always been an adaptive game. The forward pass, the helmet, even the ball itself, are all adaptations to events or ideas brought to the game and Flynn does not think football is going anywhere. Youth football is too important for too many kids to be tossed aside based on some professional athletes being hurt. After all, the cheerleaders have a higher statistical likelihood of injury than the players on the field.


A student at Catholic University, Joe Daly is an intern at the American Journalism Center, a training program run jointly by Accuracy in Academia and its sister organization— Accuracy in Media.

If you would like to comment on this article, e-mail mal.kline@academia.org.


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