“The California Youth Football Act represents a new era for youth tackle football,” said Joe Rafter, president of the pro-youth football California Youth Football Alliance, “with a focus on safety and performance that will pave the way for future generations of Americans to continue benefiting from the sport.”
While this might seem like a landmark development, the measure in many ways simply continues a very long, very repetitive conversation.
For more than a century, parents have fretted about the dangers of their children playing football. During the periods when this angst peaked, politicians and reformers tinkered with football’s rules and equipment, usually doing just enough to calm things down so kids could continue to play.
The debate over football is a vexing one, because everyone basically agrees that the game is dangerous. But on the matters of how dangerous it is and whether the risks involved are worth it, there is wide disagreement. The California Youth Football Alliance, for instance, makes the case that football provides such great “intellectual, emotional, social, and physical development benefits” that the sport simply cannot be lost. This sense of football as essential to American character-building explains why this pushback-debate-tinkering cycle keeps repeating itself, even though football remains basically the same: a game built around violent collisions that pose inherent health risks.
While research verifying the dangers of concussions is new, parents have always worried about their sons playing football. No one captured this long-standing parental concern better than President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt has been credited with saving football because of his role in spurring the development of the NCAA. And yet he was deeply conflicted about the sport — especially when it came to his own child.
In a 1903 letter to his 15-year-old son, Ted Jr., Roosevelt waffled over whether the teen’s participation in football was a good idea.
“I am delighted to have you play football. I believe in rough, manly sports,” the president wrote. But he tempered his enthusiasm elsewhere in the letter. “Now I should not in the least object to your being laid up … But I am by no means sure that it is worth your while to run the risk of being laid up for the sake of playing in the second squad.” While he was willing to defer to his son’s desire to play, in a second letter a week later, Roosevelt reiterated that it was “a little silly” for his son to risk getting “smashed” to play at the level he was playing.
Roosevelt’s doubts were typical in an era in which enthusiasm for the violent sport clashed with parental worry about that violence affecting their own children in youth and college football. Like Roosevelt, scores of parents pondered whether the risks of youth football were worth the gains as organized football grew in the United States throughout the first half of the 20th century.
The organization that became known as Pop Warner football launched in 1929. It provided the opportunity for American boys to play football outside the structure of their schools. But almost from the onset, the Pop Warner organization and its boosters had to contend with rounds of concerted pushback.
By the early 1950s, Joe Tomlin, patriarch of Pop Warner football, sought to expand youth football beyond its Pennsylvania roots. To make his case, he spoke at the 1953 “Sports for Youth” symposium organized by the National Education Association. Crucially, his audience included members of the American Medical Association and American Association of Pediatrics.
Tomlin understood that he needed to win over these medical professionals to have any shot of achieving his goal of expanded participation in youth football. He hoped medical professionals could overcome the doubts and paranoia of parents who feared their sons would be injured playing the game.
Tomlin’s speech, however, was a flop: He got booed, and at the close of the symposium, the attendees voted to ban “kid football” by a 43-to-1 vote, with Tomlin as the lone holdout, indicating that the medical profession saw the game as dangerous.
But Tomlin was not without allies. That same year, Better Homes and Gardens weighed in on the side of youth football, making an argument that resonated in Cold War America — one about shoring up masculinity and developing a strong generation of leaders. The article preached that youth sports provided “incomparable adventure and thrills while boosting physical fitness, developing grace and poise” and teaching “good sportsmanship and the art of leadership.” While acknowledging that youth football specifically had posed risks 20 years earlier when fatalities had reached a shocking 49 in one year, since that time “the decline in deaths has been gratifyingly steady.” The authors reminded their mostly female readership that “as the National Safety Council points out, you are a lot safer playing football than riding in a car.”
Football’s advocates at this time could also point to recent rule changes that, while not fundamentally changing the game, seemed aimed at player safety. Beginning in the 1951 season, for example, most youth and high school leagues adopted a policy of unlimited player substitutions. In 1952, a rule regarding fair catches was changed, allowing any player on the receiving team to make the signal, presumably to increase the number of fair catches that would be called and accordingly decrease the number of big hits on kickoffs and punts.
Two months after Better Homes and Garden made its case, Tomlin got the Associated Press to distribute a pro-youth football article to newspapers across the nation. In it, Tomlin urged parents to “utilize the program to teach youngsters fellowship, scholarship, churchmanship, citizenship and sportsmanship without depriving them of the basic urge to win.”
Such messages about football empowering boys trumped the warnings of medical professionals, and Pop Warner expanded nationwide during the 1960s.
Knowledge about the health risks of youth football, especially related to concussions, has only expanded since that time. Parents understandably are increasingly concerned and are reluctant to let their sons play. Participation in high school football is down nearly 7 percent over the past decade. Hence the California Youth Football Act, aimed at making the sport safer and stemming the decline in youth participation.
The law’s new restrictions, which include a limit of two full-contact practices per week in season and zero in the offseason, and its insistence on coaches having a tackling and blocking certification and helmets being annually recertified, seem to fit the historical pattern of tinkering with football to make it just safe enough so that the game remains palatable.
Tellingly, a significant portion of the law’s text is devoted not to detailing safety concerns, but to affirming the value of football, parroting many of the traditional but unprovable conceptions about its positive roles that date to the 19th century. “Youth football promotes the values of teamwork, self-discipline, diversity, academics, nutrition, leadership, and acceptance,” the law declares, sounding much like Tomlin in the 1950s.
While much has changed from the times of Roosevelt and Tomlin, this argument that boys benefit from rough sports remains a tantalizing one. Want proof? Just Google “Should I let my son play tackle football?” to see the argument in action.
Of course, many parties beyond youth football parents have a vested interest in seeing football continue to dominate U.S. sports culture: the National Football League, youth football organizations, media corporations that profit from its popularity, fans and other people who love the game and cherish its glories. Laws like the new one in California California Youth Football Act may serve the purposes of these groups as well.
And it is possible that the new law, if implemented effectively, will help convince parents that their children should play football. Of course, they also might determine that the law is entirely insufficient to protect children from the sport’s violence and conclude that youth football is a lost cause.
But the most likely outcome is that nothing much will change. Some parents will continue to extol the game’s virtues despite or because of its violence. Their kids will play. Others will continue to see the sport as too dangerous and push their kids toward other activities. Football will continue to be a violent, popular game. In many ways, absent a foolproof way to safeguard against concussions, this is the only logical outcome: The cycle will continue. After all, as the law itself notes, “The decision to play youth football ultimately rests with the parents.”