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“A Clear Conscience”: Advertising Football Equipment and Responsibility for Injuries

Wed, August 30, 2:00 to 3:30pm, Sheraton Boston, Floor: 3, Beacon G

Abstract

This paper examines how manufacturers of protective football equipment have shaped public understandings of youth football safety in the United States. An analysis of historical equipment advertisements, newspaper accounts, company research studies, and legal proceedings indicates that equipment advertisements and product liability cases were particularly influential, in sometimes contradictory ways. Advertisements for protective equipment inherently signaled to consumers that football carried a certain element of risk. Manufacturers of protective gear thus had to portray a nuanced portrait of the injury hazards associated with the sport: they needed to depict youth football as sufficiently risky to require the purchase of extensive equipment, but not so risky as to be inappropriate for children. Equipment ads communicated that technology and engineering were effective in mitigating risks, and often specifically emphasized manufacturers’ alliances with coaches and doctors in working to protect children. Yet in defending themselves against product liability lawsuits, manufacturers emphasized the lack of relationship between helmets and the injuries of individual plaintiffs. Manufacturers further argued that individual coaches, parents and children should take responsibility for preventing football-related injuries because they had voluntarily chosen to assume the risks of the sport. They also threatened that lawsuits would doom football by rendering sports equipment manufacturing and insurance prohibitively costly. Ultimately, sporting goods manufacturers largely succeeded in framing the issue of football safety as a matter of individual responsibility, while also presenting protective equipment as necessary and sufficient to address safety concerns.

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