Inventing Modern Football


From its earliest years American football received mixed reviews as an entertaining sport but also a rough and sometimes dangerous one. In 1876 Yale and Harvard substituted rugby for the soccer-style version of football played in the first college matches. The British game was popular because it allowed players to run with the ball; but the rules prohibited members of the team with the ball to be in front of the ballcarrier, and the characteristic scrummage by which the ball was put in play was a far cry from the modern American system of four downs to make ten yards. In the rugby “scrum” the players gathered around the ball, their arms and bodies interlocked, and then kicked the ball until it came out of the pack. Before long the Eastern teams agreed to adopt a system of yards and downs—three downs to make five yards or lose ten yards—and devised a system of numerical scoring (a field goal counted five points, and by 1884, a touchdown counted four). The rule against interference in front of the ballcarrier, although often ignored by players and referees alike, was not repealed until 1888.

As early as 1884 a committee of Harvard faculty set about investigating the new game, and the members reported savage fistfights in which players had to be separated by the judges, the referees, and even the police. The bloodlust of the spectators also shocked the committee. While one player pushed a ballcarrier out of bounds, knocked him down, stole the ball, and returned in triumph to the field, the audience shouted, “Kill him,” “Slug him,” and “Break his neck.” The Harvard faculty decided to ban football in 1888 but reneged after a year of angry student protest.

There arises a general protest against this boy-killing, money-making, education-prostituting sport.”

By the early 1890s college football had overtaken college baseball in popularity, but it still was regarded with distrust by faculty, newspaper editors, and clergy; changes in the rules had ushered in an era of team violence.

In 1888 the rules committee moved to permit blocking and tackling below the waist, and the game became less individual and more team-oriented. The open-field running and kicking of rugby had given way to a regimented sport based on force and momentum. Teams concentrated their offenses near the ball rather than spread them soccer-style across the field, and now six or more men could go into motion before the ball was put into play. Working from a variety of wedge-shaped formations (the notorious flying wedge was allowed only at the start of the half or after a score, in place of today’s kickoff return), players interlocked their arms—and sometimes clung to straps on the backs of fellow players’ uniforms—to push, pull, or even catapult the carrier through the defense.

Violence and physical danger were not the sole complaints. President Eliot, in his 1892–93 annual report to the Harvard Corporation, denounced the training by youthful coaches, intent on winning at any cost, who, he argued, had transformed the players into “powerful animals” and thereby dulled their minds. He charged that football gave the impression that universities were little more than “places of mere physical sport and not of intellectual training” and that the sometimes hefty gate receipts from college athletics had turned amateur contests into major commercial spectacles. But Eliot’s views were not yet shared by most college presidents or, for that matter, many faculty.

From the 1880s until his death in 1925, the best-known and most respected figure in college football circles was the “father of American football,” Walter Camp. Camp once wrote: “Coaching a football team is the most engrossing thing in the world. It is playing chess with human pawns.” He played for Yale and continued to coach there after going into business in New Haven; his teams racked up one national championship after another. As secretary of the Intercollegiate Football Rules Committee, Camp persuaded the committee to adopt the rules that converted what remained of rugby into team-oriented American football, and he kept his name before the football public by editing the annual football rules book and writing widely on the sport for newspapers and magazines. An able diplomat, Camp deftly steered football around the shoals of public criticism and intercollegiate squabbling without hampering its phenomenal growth. At the request of the Harvard Corporation, Camp assembled a committee that surveyed players and coaches, both past and present, to determine the extent of the injury problem. Most praised football and reported few problems with injuries; one player fondly recalled the “humanities dinged into me on the football field.”