What's The "War On Football" About, Anyway? My Day On The Frontlines

The first thing I saw was the abortion truck. I was walking toward the Omni Shoreham Hotel in downtown D.C.—site of the 2013 Values Voters Summit—and parked outside the hotel was a rickety truck that, from afar, looked like an untrustworthy kebab van. It was only until I got closer that I saw the slogans—"Abortion is SIN murder," "Homosexuality is SIN abomination," etc.—along with a photo of an aborted, dismembered fetus along the side panel. It was definitely not a kebab van.

I went into the hotel, grabbed my press credential, and strolled into one of the main exhibition halls, where you could buy "right wing jewelry" or talk with the folks at PFOX ("Parents and Friends of ExGays and Gays"). I walked by a man saying to another man, "They better hope the republic doesn't descend into chaos," which kind of made me feel like I was in the middle of a Star Wars movie. There was also a prayer room that had a NO MEDIA sign on the door.

The Values Voters Summit is one of many annual conservative conferences where right-wing superstars and their supporters can come together and discuss their vision for the country. If you're a rock-ribbed conservative, this kind of conference provides a safe haven for you—an event where you can be with your people and park your abortion truck outside the front door without feeling as if your values are under siege. One dude in the hotel bathroom felt so comfortable that he put both his arms up on the partitions dividing the urinals and let out an audible moan while pissing.

Ted Cruz was at this summit the day before, as were Rand Paul and Marco Rubio and pretty much every other right-wing luminary. But I wasn't here for Cruz, or for Paul, or any of the big-name folks. And I wasn't here to pray. I was here to see a man named Dan Flynn, a man who is unafraid to say that football is good for you in a world where such a statement—like many other "values" stances—is seemingly met with heavy doses of liberal hostility.

Flynn came to VVS to host a breakout session—one of many niche discussions that took place in smaller conference rooms separate from the big speaker venues—called "The War on Football," which shares a name with a book Flynn has written on the subject. I got to the conference room a bit early and sat in the back as an assortment of roughly 40 to 50 attendees walked in and took their seats. There were nice old ladies and frail old men and a handful of young Republicans in awkward suits. Flynn himself was already in the room, preparing his speech and dressed almost exactly like Vince Lombardi: white, short-sleeved, button-down shirt; close-cropped hair; black horn-rimmed glasses, etc.

I introduced myself and he happily gave me a little preview of his upcoming talking points: that football is safer than ever, that we are "more ignorant about head injuries now than we are enlightened," and that the War on Football is a byproduct of the overall softening of American society. Flynn never played football in college or the pros, and he has never coached it, either. He has no medical credentials to speak of. But he did play the game in high school, and he is unwavering in his belief that the game causes far more good than harm.

The clock struck 3:15 and Flynn was formally introduced to polite applause. He began with a story about Ronald Reagan (the guy knows his audience) and then got into the meat of his argument. "I don't have a high tolerance level for BS," Flynn told the crowd. What constitutes BS for Flynn? Here's a quick rundown:


    • The idea that concussions cause CTE. "There is no evidence that concussions cause CTE," Flynn told the crowd. The National Institutes of Health back him up on this, and a recent consensus statement, authored by a number of scientists who have helped pushed head injuries into the national consciousness, declared: "A cause and effect relationship has not as yet been demonstrated between CTE and concussions or exposure to contact sports.")
    • The idea that there is an agreed-upon medical definition for CTE.
    • League of Denial. "You go 72 minutes into League of Denial before you hear a single voice critical of the overall thesis."
    • The Boston University concussion study. Flynn believes that researchers at BU have exercised "selective bias" in choosing which brains to study for CTE. "They're going after brains that they believed to have been damaged [Ed note: Flynn cited Dave Duerson as an example], and LO AND BEHOLD! Those players have brain damage! They haven't ever done a randomized study on CTE."
    • The idea that football is more dangerous than ever. Flynn cited a statistic showing that 36 football players died of collision-related injuries in 1963, compared to just two in the past year, with changes in equipment and rules helping to make the game safer. "We're not talking about players getting killed anymore. I don't wanna downplay the risk of concussions, but let's admit that a concussion is a much more favorable outcome than death."
    • The idea that football players die young. Flynn cited a CDC study of 3,500 former NFL players (from 1959 to 1988) that says that NFL players live longer than the average non-players, and are less likely to die of cancer and/or heart disease (which makes sense, Flynn argues, when you consider that NFL players tend to be, you know, world-class athletes).
    • The idea the football players are more likely to commit suicide. Flynn again cited the CDC study, which noted that NFL players have a lower suicide rate than their civilian counterparts. "We don't hear about waitresses or accountants committing suicide," he told the crowd.
    • The player lawsuit against the NFL. When Flynn noted that 10 percent of the players named in the lawsuit had never played a down in the NFL, there were angry gasps from the crowd. "You got brain damage from that cup of coffee in the NFL?" he asked. "I'm not buying it!" That 10 percent figure—actually 9.4 percent, or 387 out of over 4,100 plaintiffs—includes former practice squad players like Mitch White, who, according to NFL.com, "suffered concussions on consecutive plays while assigned to NFL Europe and is now confined to a dark bedroom five days a week." Still, the implication from Flynn was clear: The lawsuit represented a money grab for many former players ("This is litigation lottery stuff"), and that there should be an extra bit of shame in asking for lawsuit money when you weren't man enough to play an NFL down.
    • The idea that football is a guaranteed ticket to dementia. Flynn referenced this Mayo Clinic study of mid-century high school football players in Rochester, Minnesota that found no increase in ALS or Parkinson's Disease (though, by Flynn's reasoning, they were presumably much more vulnerable to dying on the field). Flynn did acknowledge another study that found that NFL players were four times more likely to develop ALS than the general population, but he argued that a study of NFL players shouldn't be applied to youth leagues. "It's very dangerous to project what happens with a Junior Seau onto someone playing high school football, because there's no scientific evidence that you're gonna have cognitive issues if you're an average high school football player."

    There were occasional jokes to placate the crowd ("To me, this put the BS into PBS"). But nothing about Flynn's presentation was totally unreasonable on its face—good scientists have said many of the same things. And he didn't let the NFL off the hook, either, saying at one point, "The NFL has done a bad job taking care of its players." Mostly, he presented himself as someone who loves football and only wants the hysteria to die down so that all the proper studies can be done in an intellectual climate more conducive to sober-minded scientific inquiry, and so that people can see all the GOOD that the game produces.

    Because to Flynn, football has benefits that no other American sport can match. "The health epidemic today isn't in kid's brains. It's in their bellies!" he told the crowd, and he sounded very much like a football coach wanting to fire up his team. "We're treating boyhood as a medical condition. We're giving our kids Ritalin. We should be giving them a football! We've all been knocked down. The difference between the winners and the losers are the people who get up and the people who stay down. Walk a few blocks from here and you'll see people who got knocked down and stayed down." I assumed that Flynn was referring to homeless people in D.C. living on food stamps, because you make that sort of assumption here at VVS. "Football teaches you to get up. There are more brain-damaging activities a teenager can engage in, with long-term consequences for your brain, than playing football. I think the guy who knows that better than most is President Obama!"

    OK, so it got a little crazy. Flynn even got a little Katrina riff in there.

    "The one thing that brought New Orleans back as a city ... the New Orleans Saints! 2006, right?"

    "2009," someone said from the crowd.

    "Sorry, my memory's not as good," he said. "I've had three concussions."

    It is Flynn's opinion that football provides the ideal outlet for young male aggression. It's a sport that teaches you cooperation and self-subordination, and it helps wean kids off television and iPad screens. "The best way to get a fatso off the couch is football!" Flynn told the crowd, to vigorous nods.

    The players' lawsuit against the NFL, he argued, did virtually no damage to the league while doing irreparable harm to youth programs around the country. (He's not wrong.) And by depriving kids of football, we're essentially depriving them of a critical character-building experience. We're robbing them of the chance to become ACCOUNTABLE, which is such a valued value to Values Voters: the idea that you alone are responsible for your successes and/or your failures, and that when things go wrong, you don't go crying to some class-action lawyer about it.

    I am like Flynn in that I never played pro football, nor have I coached it. I hold no medical degrees. I'm not even all that well-versed in basic human anatomy. I played football in high school (poorly) and in college (even more poorly), and I was more than happy to go along with Flynn's closing battle cry—"Don't be ashamed of loving football!"—because I like watching football and, deep down, I don't really care if people get hurt playing it because I like watching it so much. I have serious spinal degeneration issues and I sometimes wonder if football had a role in my back problems, which in turn makes me wonder if I should subject my two sons to the game when they're old enough to play it. I've been sufficiently scared off by shit like this and this that it makes me think it's better to not encourage them to play it. Better safe than sorry.

    But I don't have definitive proof that football has done long-term damage to my body, nor will I ever. It may be entirely to blame. It may not have anything to do with it. Most likely, it deserves some unknowable percentage of blame, which annoys me. The mind craves evidence, and will often take flimsy evidence and outfit it in fake armor for the sake of intellectual comfort.

    Flynn knows about these kinds of unknowable percentages himself. A Massachusetts native, Flynn is the son of a former Gold Gloves boxer and alcoholic. About 10 years ago, Flynn's father—by then stricken blind by glaucoma—was hit by a car ("He was dead for a bit," Flynn told me matter-of-factly) and suffered permanent, catastrophic brain damage. Flynn believes that his father's boxing career may have had a hand in his blindness (there is evidence linking brain injury to glaucoma), but he also believes that his father's drinking was a factor. As were the childhood street fights. Flynn can't point his finger at one thing and know definitively that, yes, that was the one thing that led to his father's demise. And that's the way he feels about Junior Seau and many other recent football players who have met grisly fates. Maybe concussions played a role. But if you don't know for certain that football is wholly to blame, should an entire sport be abolished as a precaution?

    Unlike Flynn, I don't believe that football makes you a better person more than any other sport could. The irony of Flynn's presentation was that he demanded better causal evidence between football and brain injuries, but presented little causal evidence between football to personal betterment. Football has as much potential to bring out the asshole in boys as it does true grit. It's a tribal sport. It's a fraternity, and stupid things can happen when a bunch of teenage boys are grouped together and all raged up.

    Devotees of any sport will tell you their game is somehow more teamwork-y or more character-building than other sports, but I don't buy that. People will often exalt the intangible qualities of a sport simply so they can congratulate themselves for being sensitive enough to enjoy it. (Baseball people are REALLY annoying about this.) Maybe football is a way of becoming a self-reliant manly man, but it's not the only way, and it doesn't have a better track record than baseball, or soccer, or working on the farm eight hours a day, or whatever. Everything is what you make of it.

    I don't believe that football is the key to keeping our precious sons from becoming daisy-picking hobos (the great fear of all 'Mericans), but I do believe that nothing does the sport a greater disservice than exaggerating its importance to American life. That's why Roger Goodell is the worst exponent for the game: He never hesitates to sanctify football in the smarmiest way possible. Whatever legitimate arguments he—and Flynn—might have wind up looking ridiculous when they come wrapped in family-values pieties about a game devoted to physical destruction.

    We don't NEED football. But we like it. And the beauty of "War on Football" as a rhetorical construct is that it infuses liking football with a moral urgency. (Hey, football fans! Here's your chance to act like baseball fans!) It plays on Americans' readiness to split in two and choose up sides. A new front in the culture war was forming here at the Omni Shoreham Hotel, and even if Flynn wasn't quite explicit about it, you could feel the usual bogeymen of the American right being summoned: the trial lawyers, the unscrupulous scientists, the ovine liberal media.

    Football is a large enough enterprise now that it is synonymous with America itself. Inside this hotel, at the Voter Values Summit, America will always be a force for good. The harm it sometimes does to people is justified. The risks it takes are worth it, and it is always worth defending. That's how the people here see things.

    And that's how Dan Flynn sees football. He knows it hurts. He knows it causes pain. But he doesn't know that it causes ALL the pain, and that makes all the difference to him. He has formed certainty out of his uncertainty. And what he was offering today wasn't so much a defense of football as it was absolution for those of us who still want to enjoy it and have their children play it. To him, the game is too valuable to condemn outright.

    But perhaps you don't see it that way. Perhaps all you need to see are all the suicides and glazed eyes, and that's enough evidence—not definitive, but enough—to make you wince anytime you see some 8-year-old rocking a Pop Warner uniform. It's a complicated issue, and sports does complicated poorly. The "War on Football" framework is a misguided attempt to get rid of that complication, to tell people YOU'RE EITHER FOR FOOTBALL OR YOU'RE AGAINST IT.

    Flynn wants to believe football is an inherently good American institution under guerrilla attack, and in the neatness and roundness of the narrative he had created here today, I'd say he's succeeded in convincing himself (and many in his audience) of that. But maybe there is no war. Maybe it's just a lot of people who don't share Flynn's certainties. Maybe it's all in his head. It's just like he told me: "The brain's a weird thing."



    Drew Magary writes for Deadspin and Gawker. He's also a correspondent for GQ. Follow him on Twitter @drewmagary and email him at drew@deadspin.com. You can also buy Drew's book, Someone Could Get Hurt, through his homepage. Image by Jim Cooke