Football Makes Us Crazy

by Daniel J. Flynn
A thousand times more people die from swimming — where’s the call to ban pools?

Amazon’s one-time chief financial officer, Joy Covey, who joined the $60 billion company in 1996 when its annual sales reached $16 million, tragically left us last week. Covey, like about 700 other Americans this past year, died in a bicycling accident.

The passing of the former Amazon CFO may have been the only bicycling death you heard about last week. But at least a dozen took place in the United States. Two Massachusetts women who were cycling for charity died in Hampton, N.H., after an oncoming driver veered into their lane of traffic. A hit-and-run driver killed a homeless couple bicycling late at night in Chapel Hill, N.C. An eighth-grader in Hopkinton, Mass., and a 25-year-old near Grand Junction, Colo., met the same fate while riding on busy roads. Other such fatalities occurred in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Florida, and points beyond.

More Americans died from cycling accidents last week than died from football hits during the last three seasons combined. The tragedies led no one to call for a ban on bikes. Everybody seems to comprehend that the positives in health and transportation outweigh the considerable negatives of the pedal-powered vehicles. This measured perspective doesn’t extend to our collective view of tackle football, a far less deadly activity that, like biking, provides myriad social and health benefits.

We think of cycling as a serene experience; football, as a violent one. But SUVs loom more ominously than linebackers, asphalt serves as a more dangerous playing surface than grass, and expensive Schwinns move faster than free safeties. Though the intent of nose guards may be to hurt you, the outcome of the game they play proves less dangerous than any number of uncontroversial outdoor activities. When the risks of any sport are assessed, results should matter more than intent.

One thousand times more Americans die from swimming than from football hits. Last year, skateboarding collisions killed 15 times as many Americans as football collisions did. About twelve times as many people die annually from crashes on the ski slopes than die from crashes on the gridiron.

If you’re wearing a Riddell or Schutt helmet when you die, the Drudge Report surely will highlight your passing. If you’re not wearing a helmet in a fatal riding or skiing crash, Matt Drudge probably won’t notice. The war on football is as much a clash between perception and reality as anything else.

When journalists do notice serious injuries in sports not named football, calls for abolition do not usually follow. After Michael Ybarra, a Wall Street Journal “extreme sports correspondent,” died from a climbing fall in the Sierra Nevada Mountains near Yosemite National Park last year, no national debate emerged over the wisdom of mountaineering. The celebrity skiing deaths of Michael Kennedy, Representative Sonny Bono, and actress Natasha Richardson thankfully led to an uptick in helmets on the slopes but not in calls to abandon the sport. Caleb Moore’s death while snowmobiling at the Winter X Games earlier this year hasn’t led to a lawsuit against the event or equipment manufacturers. Football plays by a separate set of rules.

If the debate over football were about safety, then the scolds seeking to prohibit the game would table their ambition until after doing away with skiing, skateboarding, cycling, and dozens of other deadlier sports.

Safety works as a false front for what’s really motivating the attacks on America’s game. Rough and muddy football clashes with our increasingly risk-averse, passive-aggressive, unsoiled society. It doesn’t fit in a world of parentally monitored play dates, Xbox babysitters, and trophies for everyone. The war on football is a cultural tic calling itself a public-health crusade.

Football competes on a rigged playing field vis-à-vis other sports. Our standards for it, partly because of its popularity, are more stringent than our standards for other sports. If a fatality occurs in cycling, it doesn’t register unless it happened to Amazon’s CFO or someone similarly famous. When such an injury claims the life of an anonymous football player, every journalistic outlet runs with the story in part because it plays into an existing storyline.

This creepy exploitation of tragedy reinforces an impression about football that is at variance with the facts. Football is safer than it ever has been — and safer than many uncontroversial pastimes ever will be.

Football makes fans crazy. Its distortion of the senses influences the game’s critics, too.

— Daniel J. Flynn is the author of The War on Football: Saving America’s Game.