Last week, I was asked to appear on "Outside the Lines," ESPN’s flagship news magazine, to discuss what football people tend to refer to, somewhat squeamishly, as “the Chris Borland situation.”
Last March Borland, a star linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers, shocked the sports world by announcing that he was quitting the game after just one season, because he feared he might suffer brain damage if he continued to play.
This was not exactly a far-fetched notion, given that the NFL itself had estimated—after years of denying any link between football and brain disease—that up to 30 percent of their former players would suffer from cognitive ailments such as Alzheimer’s and dementia.
When I arrived at the studio, I was told I should be ready to discuss the “meaning” of the Chris Borland situation, which did not strike me as particularly elusive. When your employer announces in federal court documents that you have a one in three chance of being neurologically disabled in the course of doing your job, the smart money is on retiring.
Still, I was excited to record the episode because "Outside the Lines" is easily the most intelligent and journalistically sophisticated show within the vast and ever-expanding kingdom of ESPN. The program eschews bombastic punditry and slavish promotion (cue the highlight porn) in favor of in-depth reporting and conversation.
It came as something of a surprise, then, when I was informed, a few minutes before airtime, that the other guest on the show would be Daniel J. Flynn, the author of a 2013 book called “The War on Football: Saving America’s Game” and the sports editor at the right-wing website Breitbart.com.
Flynn’s argument, obviously, is that football—and by extension masculine virtue—is under assault from the liberal media, greedy lawyers and doctors, and sissified citizens, all of whom have conspired to manufacture a Big Lie: that playing football is dangerous. In fact, football is safer than it’s ever been!
Flynn makes at least one important point in his book—that the emergent medical research regarding the dangers of football are not yet fully understood, and thus shouldn’t be overstated. The rest is largely paranoid he-man propaganda, which conservative pundits use as a kind of literary ATM machine at this point.
There’s no honest engagement with the complex and disturbing body of data that surrounds football circa 2015. Flynn’s narrative is sloppily jury-rigged to make football fans—especially those who are old white conservatives—feel like victims.
But football fans aren’t victims. We’re the definitional opposite of victims. The beauty of being a football fan—and I was one for 40 years—is that you get to watch scads of thrilling violence from the safety of your own couch.
For the most part, we’re protected even from having to confront the tragic results of that violence. Why? Because the players wear uniforms and helmets. Because brain injuries can’t really be seen. Because any player who gets seriously injured is removed from the viewer’s sight. Oh, and because there’s an entire media industry dedicated to promoting (and profiting by) the privileges and grievances of fandom.
This is why we continue to view football as a magical kingdom where 270-pound supermen can smash into one another over and over and never get seriously injured.
The folks at "Outside the Lines" know all this. In fact, the clip that ran right before Flynn and I went live—an in-depth interview with Borland—was one of the most thoughtful and moving pieces about football ever to air on ESPN. This is largely due to Borland himself. His concerns about the game are so humbly articulated and so obviously grounded in a basic human decency.
“If you can’t make plays and make tackles and help the team win,” without putting your health at risk, he observed, “something’s wrong with the game, not the person making the plays.”
So why did ESPN’s most intelligent show provide a guy like Daniel Flynn a platform for his agitprop? Most obviously, because conflict plays well on TV, and they wanted my opinions—as a vocal critic of the game—to clash with Flynn’s.
The producers were probably also concerned about “balance.” If someone’s going to question the morality of football, we need that voice on the other side to defend it. News programs use the same logic when they invite climate deniers to comment on climate science. Or lobbyists hired by billionaires to hold forth on campaign finance reform, or income inequality. The pursuit of “objectivity” becomes the enabler of propaganda.
In the case of football in particular, it’s worth noting that 99 percent of all coverage is promotional in nature. It feeds our passion for the game. Even the stories about various scandals aren’t aimed at questioning the inherent morality of football, but vilifying individual scapegoats who have tainted the game’s honor.
And guys like Flynn serve as guardians of this status quo. The last thing they want is a candid discussion about the morality of America’s most popular sport. On the contrary, the whole idea is to disgorge talking points that reduce moral consideration to a brutish binary. You’re either fer football, or against it.
It should come as no surprise that the conversation between Mr. Flynn and myself played out according to this script.
Flynn insisted, over and over, that football is safer than it’s ever been. Why? Because players aren’t dying on the field, they’re simply getting concussed, which we should count as progress.
This argument is dishonest on two levels. First, what the prevailing medical research actually suggests is that players at every level of the game are suffering thousands of sub-concussive hits over the course of a season, along with diagnosed concussions, and that these cumulative traumas are eventually causing dementia and other brain illnesses.
Just because most fans never see players suffering from brain damage later in life, doesn’t mean the sport is safer. It means fans are more insulated from its dangers.
But it’s also simply not true that football players aren’t dying. They are, mostly in high school. Over the past two seasons, 18 players have died as a direct result of playing football, according to the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research at the University of North Carolina.
Last September and October, three high school players died in a single week, a rash of deaths that led Time to publish a cover story with the picture of a player taken moments before his death, asking “Is Football Worth It?”
To Flynn, none of this inconvenient data exists. In his world, football remains an ideal way to instill discipline and teamwork and valor, and anyone who attacks it is an enemy of these values.
But the parents who won’t let their kids play football aren’t attacking anything. They’re trying to protect their kids, based on some pretty terrifying—if preliminary—research. These aren’t acts of war. They’re acts of conscience.
There is one basic point on which Flynn and I agree. We both see football as a moral undertaking. To him, it’s what makes boys into men.
But if you’re going to argue that football is a moral undertaking, then you have to take the bad with the good. Which means reckoning with football as it currently exists, not cooking up some Knute Rockne fantasy.
It means reckoning with the nihilistic greed of the NFL and NCAA, the way our allegiance to football has distorted the academic mission of high schools and colleges, the way football siphons money from the public till to further enrich billionaire owners, the way football distorts our perceptions of gender and race, and the way it normalizes violence.
In a radio interview that followed our televised discussion, Flynn actually described the risks of football as “bumps and bruises.”
This is a laughable notion to anyone who saw Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III get pummeled the other night. He suffered six brain traumas in the space of half an hour and left the field with “a concussion.”
But I thought about Flynn’s blithe dismissal even more the day after our squabble, when I received a note from the mother of a 17-year-old boy who suffered a traumatic brain injury playing the game.
“He is severely disabled for life,” she wrote. “Football is not worth losing a son. I don’t watch anymore.”