Inventing Modern Football

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During October of 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt, who had recently intervened in a national coal strike and the Russo-Japanese War, turned his formidable attention to another kind of struggle. The President, a gridiron enthusiast who avidly followed the fortunes of his alma mater, Harvard, summoned representatives of the Eastern football establishment—Harvard, Yale, and Princeton—to the White House. He wanted to discuss brutality and the lack of sportsmanship in college play.

Theodore Roosevelt believed strongly that football built character, and he believed just as strongly that roughness was a necessary—even a desirable—feature of the game. “I have no sympathy whatever,” he declared, “with the over-wrought sentimentality that would keep a young man in cotton wool. I have a hearty contempt for him if he counts a broken-arm or collarbone as of serious consequences when balanced against the chance of showing that he possesses hardihood, physical prowess, and courage.”

 

But now Roosevelt was worried that the brutality of the prize ring had invaded college football and might end up destroying it.

In an article in McClure’s Magazine, the journalist Henry Beach Needham recounted an injury in the Dartmouth-Princeton game in which the star for Dartmouth—a black man—had his collarbone broken early in the game. A prep school friend of the Princeton quarterback who had inflicted the injury, himself black and a member of the Harvard team, confronted the offender: “You put him out because he is a black man.”

 

“We didn’t put him out because he is a black man,” the Princeton quarterback replied indignantly. “We’re coached to pick out the most dangerous man on the opposing side and put him out in the first five minutes of play.” The author was a close friend of the President, and Roosevelt no doubt read Needham’s two-part series. Soon after the first article had appeared, Roosevelt criticized flagrant disregard for the rules in his June commencement address at Harvard, and on his return trip he met with Needham.

By the fall of 1905 Roosevelt had more reason than ever to pay attention to college football. His son Ted was playing for the Harvard freshmen, and Roosevelt and other grads were concerned that the school’s president, Charles Eliot, an opponent of football, might use gridiron conduct to argue for the abolition of the game at Harvard.

When Roosevelt’s friend Endicott Peabody of Groton School, on behalf of an association of Eastern and Midwestern headmasters, suggested a meeting with Eastern college representatives, the President immediately sprang into action. Having ended the Russo-Japanese War and dealt with several major issues, The New York Times commented, Roosevelt “today took up another question of vital interest to the American people. He started a campaign of reform of football.”

To the inner circle of football advisers and coaches who met with Roosevelt at the White House on October 9, 1905, the President first expressed general concerns about the game. Then he made a few remarks “on what he remembered of each college’s unfair play from several things that had happened in previous years.” Perhaps the examples hit too close to home; not everyone at the meeting concurred. Nevertheless, Roosevelt asked his guests to frame an agreement condemning brutality and disregard for the rules. The six men dutifully drew up a statement and pledged that their teams would honor it.

Unfortunately for Roosevelt the brief campaign did little more than draw attention to the evils of college play. The White House meeting came at the beginning of an injury-ridden season that plunged football into the worst crisis in its history. Twice more in 1905 the President intervened, behind the scenes, when lack of sportsmanship appeared to violate the spirit of the White House agreement. In the Harvard-Yale game, Harvard nearly withdrew its team from the field after a Yale tackier had hurled himself into a Harvard punt receiver who was calling for a fair catch and the referees refused to assess a penalty. Even Roosevelt’s son Ted was battered in the Yale-Harvard freshman game, some said by Yale players out to ambush him.

By the end of November the protest had reached a fever pitch, and the future of college football—professional football barely existed—was more clouded than ever before. Columbia University abolished football play at the end of the season, President Nicholas Murray Butler declaring it an “academic nuisance.” Professor Shailer Mathews of the University of Chicago Divinity School was more emphatic: “From the President of the United States to the humblest member of a school and college faculty there arises a general protest against this boy-killing, man-mutilating, money-making, education-prostituting, gladiatorial sport.”

The crisis had been building for decades, and some of the problems that inflamed it were inherent in the American version of football, which had emerged from British rugby a generation earlier.