Inventing Modern Football


In 1894 the rules committee bowed to public pressure by abolishing the flying wedge and proclaiming that “no momentum mass plays shall be allowed.” Such plays were defined, however, as more than three men going into motion before the ball was put in play. Ingenious coaches merely brought guards and tackles into the backfield and put their backs in motion before the ball was snapped. It seemed that no minor adjustments in the rules could contain the potential for difficulties in this crude and often violent sport. Not long after the adoption of the rules changes, Harvard broke gridiron relations with Yale when the Yale captain, Frank Hinkey, near the end of an injury-plagued game, landed on the Harvard ballcarrier while the man was down and broke his collarbone. In a violent grudge match between Georgetown University and the Columbia Athletic Club of Washington, halfback George (“Shorty”) Bahen was fatally injured, and three years later the Georgia legislature tried to ban football after the Univeristy of Georgia’s Richard Von Gammon was killed in a game against the University of Virginia. Despite pleas by the dead boy’s mother to save football, the Georgia legislature voted to abolish the game, and when the governor refused to sign the bill, the House of Representatives tried to pass it over his veto. Only a controversial interpretation of the legislative rules by the Speaker of the House saved football from the wrath of the legislators.

There were problems besides the violence. As football spread rapidly through the country, eligibility violations spread with it. In 1894 seven players of the University of Michigan’s starting eleven were not even enrolled as students. At Ann Arbor two years later a talented halfback appeared at the season’s start, never registered, attended only two courses, and dropped out after the end of the season. These “tramp” athletes became notorious for casually moving from school to school, as in the case of the Pennsylvania State College player who showed up so well in a loss to the University of Pennsylvania that he was practicing with the University of Pennsylvania team the following week. The Springfield Republican complained that the game had veered so far from its simple beginnings as to require an “armored eleven, twenty substitutes, a brass band, and a field telegraph.”

In the Progressive Era, college athletics found itself under attack along with monopolies.

Nevertheless, college presidents and their faculties continued to overlook many infractions because they believed football was a healthy outlet for pent-up schoolboy energies. President William H. P. Faunce of Brown University said the critics had forgotten “the old drinking and carousing of a generation ago…the smashing of window-panes and destruction of property characteristic of that time.” Football also provided an outlet for the faculty. Professor Woodrow Wilson’s wife, Ellen, described her husband as so depressed by Princeton’s first-ever loss to the University of Pennsylvania that only the election of Grover Cleveland as President that same week had relieved his gloom. “Really I think Woodrow would have had some sort of collapse if we had lost in politics, too,” she wrote.

But the undercurrent of discontent evident in the 1890 continued into the early years of the new century. In the reformist tide of the Progressive Era college athletics suddenly found itself under attack along with political corruption and industrial monopolies. Taking aim at the practices in Eastern colleges, Henry Needham depicted, besides brutality, a system of laxity bordering on corruption in which prep schools such as Andover and Exeter groomed athletes for Eastern colleges and then bent the rules to allow the players to take entrance exams a year before they were eligible. “The only conclusion to be drawn,” he wrote, “is that, thanks to the influence of the colleges, there is growing up a class of students tainted with commercialism.”

He described the football career of an athlete named James J. Hogan, who entered Exeter in his early twenties and then went on to Yale. Though from a poor family, Hogan lived in the finest dormitory, took a free trip to Cuba with the Yale trainer Mike Murphy, and was given the lucrative franchise of representing the American Tobacco Company on campus. According to an official of the company, the player talked up the cigarettes to his friends. “They appreciate and like him; they realize that he is a poor fellow, working his way through college, and they want to help him. So they buy our cigarettes, knowing that Hogan gets a commission on every box sold in New Haven.”

Even with the Needham articles and Roosevelt’s concern, the public might have lost interest in the problem if the 1905 season had not brought its rash of casualties. There were twenty-three football deaths. Only a handful took place in intercollegiate play, but one in particular set in motion the movement to reform the game. In a match between Union College and New York University, Harold Moore of Union died after being kicked in the head. Chancellor Henry M. MacCracken of NYU seized the opportunity to summon a reform conference.