Boys Football Debate and Medical Remarks, 1899-1904

Edited by Matt Chaney,

Posted Sunday, January 29, 2017

While news of the NFL and NCAA dominates contemporary discussion over “safer football,” the juvenile game poses critical questions of ethics and legality, historic for the institutions of medicine, government, education and religion. Talking points and base evidence of today’s dilemma over juvenile football in America aired publicly more than a century ago. Controversy followed college football at turn of the 20th century, but the collision game for boys was roundly condemned. Girls tackle football was utterly disallowed. “Americanized” football was established tradition for the colleges, but debate over juvenile players divided authorities of institutions, including news media. A segment of college-football insiders believed juveniles shouldn’t play the collision sport. By 1900 medical specialists could adequately diagnose injuries and exertion problems of football players—including brain trauma and lasting disorder—but treatments were primitive. No antibiotic was yet known and emergency care was limited. Common injury like deep bruising, internal laceration and bone fracture posed significant risk for complications, especially infection, and bedridden patients, unable to rise for too long, simply died. Festering skin abrasion grew lethal in some cases, septic, and catastrophic injury to brain or spinal cord was a death sentence. But football advocates said the game was becoming “safe” and “sane” for players from boys to men. Football officials and supporters touted concepts such as medical supervision, proper training—including tackling with head placed aside—and leather helmets to prevent “concussion of the brain” in varying severity. Prep and school football had been organized since the 1880s by male figures acting as coaches and trainers, commonly principals and teachers. Advocates of boys football said “benefits outweigh risks” for lessons in teamwork, chivalry, warrior courage, and Muscular Christianity. Famed politician Theodore Roosevelt extolled football although he hadn’t played in college at Harvard; “Teddy” believed the sport exemplified his personal mantra, widely renowned of a speech: The Strenuous Life.

The historical texts and notes on football issues previously posted here in timeline were publicly available only for a term. The collections are now in reserve by the researcher for future use. The following remain posted:

Chaney, M. (2016, Dec. 21). ‘Safe Football Failed in 1880s, Talking Points Lived On.

Chaney, M. (2015, July 28). The 1890s: Brain risks confirmed in American football.

Chaney, M. (2016, Jan. 30). 1900-1912: ‘First Concussion Crisis’ for beloved football.

Chaney, M. (2016, May 11). ‘Heads Up’ theory, football helmets and brain disease, 1883-1962.

Chaney, M. (2016, May 31). Teddy Roosevelt loved football, except when it brutalized his son.

Chaney, M. (2016, Nov. 29, 2016). “Slaughter of the innocents”: When D.C. considered banning high school football.

Matt Chaney is a writer, editor, researcher and consultant on public issues in sport, specializing in American football for three decades. Chaney, with an MA in media studies, is a former college football player and coach whose books include Spiral of Denial: Muscle Doping in American Footballfrom his Four Walls Publishing in 2009Chaney’s study for graduate thesis, co-published with the University of Central Missouri in 2001, analyzed print sport-media coverage of anabolic substances in football from 1983-1999. Email him at or visit the website for more information.