Theses Doctoral

No Game for Boys to Play Debating the Safety of Youth Football, 1945-2015

Bachynski, Kathleen Elizabeth

Tackle football has been one of the most popular sports for boys in the United States since the mid-twentieth century. This dissertation examines how debates over the safety of football for children at the high school level and younger have changed from 1945 through the present. After World War II, the expansion of youth tackle football leagues, particularly for pre-pubescent children, fostered a new range of medical and educational concerns. Yet calls for limits on tackle football were largely obscured by the political and social culture of the Cold War, including beliefs about violence, masculinity, and competition.
A broad range of groups and individuals were involved in debating the safety of youth football throughout the remainder of the twentieth and early twenty-first century. These groups included doctors, coaches, educators, lawyers, engineers, parents, athletes, journalists, and sporting goods manufacturers. Their arguments over the risks and benefits of youth football involved not only the sport’s effects on physical health, but also on social and emotional well-being. By the 1970s, researchers were applying injury epidemiology methods to studying key mechanisms involved in football injuries, while a broader consumer product safety movement contributed to the development of the first football helmet standards. Football equipment not only remained a primary focus of football safety debates, but often symbolized safety itself. Sporting goods manufacturers largely succeeded in framing the issue of football safety as a matter of individual responsibility.
The social position of children and their communities shaped debates over the risks and benefits of football, including the sport’s spectator nature. By the early twentieth-first century, concerns about football-related brain injuries at all levels of the sport emerged as a topic of national debate. New medical findings and the reporting and advocacy of journalists and former athletes contributed to increasing awareness of brain trauma in the sport. Debates over the appropriate policy recommendations to make in the context of uncertainty over youth football’s long-term consequences have persisted since 1945 through the present.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Sociomedical Sciences
Thesis Advisors
Rosner, David K.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
April 27, 2016