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The Fall of Football

Football does not run deep in my family’s blood. Our household religions growing up were Baptism and Baseball, in roughly that order. Pastor Bob Lott—aka “Dad”— was a high-school baseball player turned youth minister and amateur sports nut. His boys’ earliest memories are of swinging plastic bats at wiffle balls in the yard, going out for tee-ball and Little League, and chasing other kids under the bleachers and around the batting cages during the adult church league Monday night softball games in Tacoma, Washington.

Dad played football in high school for one year only, a fact he rarely advertised. Only one of the three brothers Lott went out for football. He quickly lost interest after he hit another kid a little too hard and caused a minor, easily healed break to the boy’s arm. Not so many years ago, you could have said that I didn’t have a dog in the fight outlined in popular historian Daniel J. Flynn’s The War on Football. What changed was that I started watching football and came to appreciate the strategy, discipline, drama, and sheer brutal beauty of the game.

Watching was practically unavoidable. While I lived in D.C., a friend had season tickets to the Redskins and dragged me along to games. Another friend, a roommate from Flynn’s native Massachusetts, worshiped God at his Methodist Church on Sunday morning and on Sunday nights venerated the New England Patriots in our living room or local sports bars. I moved back to Washington state just in time for the Seahawks to get good under gum-chewing dynamo coach Pete Carroll and was surrounded by fantasy leaguers, season ticket-holding diehards, and tens of thousands of new fair-weather fans.

When Flynn says football is America’s game, he doesn’t have to make a statistical case to convince us. Even diehard baseball bigots who think that theirs is a true gentlemen’s contest—the recent steroid-fueled home run derby notwithstanding—and that football is barbaric know Flynn’s right. Football dominates our kids’ sports, our high schools, our colleges, our televisions, our bars, even our bedrooms—women complain of being “football widowed” by their fanatical fan husbands.

Flynn sees football’s current dominance as a win for civilization, not barbarism. “Football is good for you,” he writes. “Football brings a divided America together. It channels the natural aggression of testosterone-filled teenagers in a positive direction.” Moreover, it teaches life lessons:

Players succeed by transcending pain rather than brooding on it. Game day results come through hard work during practice and the offseason. No team can show up unprepared and expect victory. Competitors aren’t social atoms but part of something greater. Rules limit conduct; consequences await transgressors. Authorities—coaches, captains, referees—foster obedience, listening, learning, humility, and discipline.

File all that under “nice while it lasted,” according to Flynn’s own dire predictions. He argues American football has peaked. It should be expected to undergo steep and irreversible decline, not for demographic reasons but for cultural ones. Americans are softer than they used to be, both physically and emotionally, he explains. American youth are fatter. Their parents tend to be either under-involved, in the case of many single-parent or poor families, or way too involved in trying to secure special opportunities, privileges, and exemptions for their children with an eye toward rigging the kids’ futures.

So-called helicopter parents take their cues from whatever they can grab hold of in the more respectable parts of popular culture, and the NPR set emphasize the dangers of football. Malcolm Gladwell blinked and decided we should abolish the game. President Barack Obama said that if he had a son, he would have to think good and hard about whether to let him play football. Talking heads regularly go on about how brutal the game is on players, often likening football to smoking. Several city councilors and school board members have proposed abolishing the game altogether for kids. They have not yet enjoyed much success, but overprotective parents all over the country have begun to keep their children out of this potentially debilitating sport.

This is a contrarian book and an honest one. It is at times brutally frank in its acknowledgment of how many males have been hurt, maimed, or killed on the gridiron. It asks us to see the broader picture of all the good football does—while at the same time showing why the good is so often obscured. Football is now safer than ever before, Flynn argues with evidence. He compares it favorably to many other popular sports, including baseball and hockey, in which small, dense projectiles regularly hurl toward players’ heads and other body parts at high speeds. He thinks much of the outrage directed at football is based on flawed studies and trumped up claims by trial lawyers who stand to make an awful lot of money from our bad impression of the game. He doubts that even a nation as football-obsessed as America has what it takes to resist the onslaught.

Flynn is a temperamental declinist. This can lead him to exaggerate problems, but it also allows him to see earlier and more clearly when things really are going badly. I resisted his jeremiads in a previous work, Blue Collar Intellectuals, while admiring everything else about it—the research, the writing, the choice of subjects. Yet this time with The War on Football Flynn seems to have struck true.

On a recent Saturday night, I went to CenturyLink Field, where the Seahawks usually play football, but instead I saw a snapshot of things to come. I have seen the future of American sports, and it has a whole lot less upper body strength. It still has plenty of running and passing and kicking, but is extremely low-scoring. Teams can rise to dominance just by running up a great number of tie games. The fans are even more emotional than football fans, often chanting “Let him die!” when the player from an opposing team falls on the field and the refs see to him. The sport is soccer, and we may well be doomed.

To do The War on Football justice, I have refrained from commenting on the media controversy that threatened to swallow the book in the month of its release. Yet it would be unjust to readers to leave it out, so here are the facts. Publicists for Flynn’s book had pitched the Wall Street Journal’s Weekend Review the idea of an essay based on the book. Editors at the Journal said send it over. This Flynn did. After some internal debate at the paper, it passed on the piece. Flynn placed a version of the rejected article in the sister News Corp. tabloid the New York Post instead.

The Journal then published the essay “In Defense of Football” by writer Max Boot the day before the Post ran Flynn’s piece by the same title. Because of the newspapers’ different online posting schedules, the stories appeared only hours apart. Upon reading the rival piece, Flynn decided the title wasn’t all the Journal had made off with. “For five straight paragraphs,” Flynn wrote in his weekly pop-culture column for The American Spectator’s website, “Boot’s piece relies on the same examples I used in my submission. Beyond this, Boot uses these identical examples in the precise order I had employed in my piece considered by editor Gary Rosen almost three weeks earlier.” Elsewhere, Flynn lamented that he had spent “most of my summer unwittingly serving as an unpaid researcher” for a rival writer. https://theamericanconservative.com/archive/januaryfebruary-2014/

Flynn pressed his case at length. He argued that his coming forward had nothing to do with sour grapes and everything to do with justice and with preemptively heading off charges of plagiarism because the Journal had put him “in a terrible position. To some, it would seem as though I had cribbed from Boot’s piece rather than the reverse.”

For his part, Boot threatened to sue the newspaper Politico if it printed Flynn’s “scurrilous and unsubstantiated allegations.” The paper ran with those accusations. From a trail of e-mails, reporters Dylan Byers and Hadas Gold pieced together a damning story: the Journal had rejected the work of an author about to have a book out; approached another writer, Boot, who was off all the way in Thailand, offering him $4,000 for 2,000 words and plenty of editorial help, to produce a piece making the same basic point as Flynn; and released the Boot piece at the same time as Flynn would be launching his book without so much as a name-check. The reporters didn’t definitively establish whether Boot got a look at Flynn’s work to crib from it. They proved he knew of its existence and some of its arguments.

Flynn agonized before coming forward because he understood that the arguments are what matter most. If football is to have a future, the game will have to be defended more fiercely than the Carolina Panthers guard QB Cam Newton. The War on Football gives the cultural defensive line a fighting chance.

Jeremy Lott is editor at large forRealClearSports. 

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