Inventing Modern Football

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He invited the presidents of thirteen schools to confer in New York on December 5. Meeting less than two weeks after Columbia had dropped football, the conference came within a single vote of passing a resolution to abolish the game as then played but instead decided to hold a general convention of football-playing institutions later in the month.

The intercollegiate conference opened on December 28 with delegates from more than sixty schools attending. Some, like the representative from Columbia, wanted football done away with altogether, yet many delegates still hoped for a solution short of abolition. The pro-football forces grouped around Capt. Palmer Pierce of West Point and, according to a delegate from the University of Kansas, were the “best organized and came with a well-defined plan and a determination to save the game.” The result was a proposal to appoint a rules committee to negotiate with the Intercollegiate Football Rules Committee in a final effort at joint action.

By early January the two committees were holding exploratory meetings followed by simultaneous but separate sessions at the Hotel Netherlands in New York City. Then, in a dramatic, though carefully orchestrated, move, the Harvard coach, Bill Reid, who after the White House meeting had met twice more with President Roosevelt, left the old committee to join the new group. Despite some grumbling by members of the old committee, a merger was arranged, and, symbolic of the transfer of power, Reid replaced Walter Camp as secretary of the joint rules committee. During the next months rules changes were hammered out in a series of tumultuous meetings.

 

As rules reform swung into motion, other complaints about football’s role in college life were being hotly debated in the Midwestern “Big Nine” conference. Frederick Jackson Turner of the University of Wisconsin, best known for his essays on the American frontier, introduced a motion to suspend football for two years. An angry gathering of students marched on Turner’s house. When he emerged, the students shouted, “When can we have football?” Amid hisses and shouts of “Put him in the lake!” Turner tried to reason with the students; they burned him in effigy.

In the end only Northwestern University dropped football. Many critics still wanted to give the rules committee a chance to make changes, although a few in the football world, such as Amos Alonzo Stagg, the University of Chicago coach and the only rules committee member from outside the East, feared that his fellow committee members might turn football into a “parlor game.” The possibility of radical changes disturbed the old guard. Someone wrote to Walter Camp, troubled by rumors that “forward passes and other dream-like things have been brought into the realm of possibilities, even probabilities.”

Already the rules committee had enacted the most sweeping changes since football had emerged from rugby a quarter-century before. In an attempt to strengthen the open-field features and to steer away from the grinding line play, a ten-yard rule was adopted. It would allow a team to have three opportunities to gain ten yards, rather than five yards as before. Walter Camp, who had proposed the change in 1904, believed that teams would have to play a more open offense to gain the extra five yards. Less palatable to older members was the “dream-like” forward pass that had been approved by the rules committee (before this change, the ball could only be lateraled).

The football world heaved a sigh of relief as all the major Eastern schools except Columbia embraced the new rules. In the 1906 season and for two years following, the verdict on the “new football” was generally favorable. In spite of fluctuations in the injury count, the number of deaths dropped to fourteen, fifteen, and ten.

Then, in the fall of 1909, the trend toward a safer game abruptly reversed itself. In a match between Harvard and West Point, the Army captain, Eugene Byrne, exhausted by continual plays to his side of the line, was fatally injured. Earl Wilson of the Naval Academy was paralyzed and later died as a result of a flying tackle. And the University of Virginia’s halfback Archer Christian died after a game against Georgetown, probably from a cerebral hemorrhage suffered in a plunge through the line. “Does the public need any more proof,” wrote the Washington Post, “that football is a brutal, savage, murderous sport? Is it necessary to kill many more promising young men before the game is revised or stopped altogether?” At both Georgetown and Virginia, football was suspended for the remainder of the season, and the District of Columbia school system banned it altogether. Even Col. John Mosby, the old Confederate raider, used Christian’s death to rail against football as “murder” and said that the presence of a team doctor demonstrated that the game was tantamount to “war.”