Inventing Modern Football

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David Starr Jordan, president of Stanford University, called football “Rugby’s American pervert.”
 

Stunned by the death of Christian, the University of Virginia’s president, Eugene Alderman, who a decade earlier had declared, “I should rather see a boy of mine on the rush line fighting for his team than on the sideline smoking a cigarette,” warned that the outcry was more than hysteria on the part of the press. President David Starr Jordan of Stanford referred to football as “Rugby’s American pervert” and said that the “farce of football reform” that was slipped by the public in 1905 and 1906 could not be repeated. Even the presidents of the powerful triumvirate of Yale, Princeton, and Harvard, whose schools had not joined the conference of 1905, which was now known as the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), held special meetings to seek remedies.

As various sets of proposals were voted on, the forward pass loomed as the chief obstacle to settlement. By April 30, with the proceedings reaching a decisive point, opponents of the pass had collected enough votes to approve a motion to confine its reception to the area behind the line of scrimmage. While a three-man subcommittee put together a report, the Harvard coach Percy Haughton feverishly worked behind the scenes to save the apparently doomed forward pass. “To my mind,” he wrote Amos Alonzo Stagg, “unless we retain the forward pass it will be the death of football.”

On Friday, May 13,1910, the committee adopted the new rules—seven men on the line of scrimmage, no pushing or pulling, no interlocking interference (arms linked or hands on belts and uniforms), and four fifteen-minute quarters—and it readopted the forward pass. Unable to invent a new formula for yards and downs, the committee stuck for the time with ten yards in three downs. Although the forward pass was narrowly saved, it still was not given a full vote of confidence; it had to be thrown at least five yards behind the line of scrimmage and was limited to twenty yards past it.

The adoption of these rules eliminated the cruder versions of nineteenth-century football and established the groundwork for a sleeker, faster, wide-open game. Two years later, in 1912, the committee added a fourth down to make ten yards, raised the value of the touchdown to six points, and reduced the field goal to three points. The twenty-yard restriction on forward passes was also eliminated, though the pass still had to be thrown from five yards behind the line of scrimmage. With the lifting of the most restrictive rules, the forward pass quickly became a potent offensive weapon, as illustrated by the brilliant performance of Knute Rockne and Gus Dorais in Notre Dame’s 35-13 airborne upset of Army in 1913. In the sports-crazy 1920s the new open football proved to be entertainment as well as to have cash value, and mammoth stadiums were erected to accommodate the swelling attendance.

 

In the years since 1912 the size and speed of the athletes have changed the hazards of the game, but the form of football has remained much the same as it was when it emerged from the crisis of 1910. Although the upstart forward pass quickly proved itself, the rule requiring the ball to be thrown from five yards behind the line of scrimmage was not removed from college rules until 1945. Perhaps the rule change that altered the game the most was the adoption in the 1940s of free substitution, which ushered in two-platoon football. In 1954 the football solons tried to restore the old style of football, in which the same players had to play offense and defense, but this rear-guard action was abandoned in the early 1960s.

Football is safer today than in the early 190Os. Carefully engineered and tested equipment, especially headgear, has reduced the life-threatening injuries that plagued football before 1920. Early headgear, seldom worn consistently, shielded the ears and surface of the head but gave inadequate protection to the skull and brain. After World War I a sponge-rubber lining was added to the crown of the helmet, and by the late 1930s a sturdy leather helmet with an inner felt lining was being used. But it was not until 1943 that all players were required to wear headgear. The plastic helmet, which distributes shock more evenly, was introduced in the 1940s amid objections reminiscent of those that accompanied the original solely leather helmets. Some critics argued—and still do—that the hard plastic helmet, used as an offensive weapon, has as much potential for causing as for preventing serious injuries. So the game remains the subject of periodic debate requiring a battery of experts to keep it in balance between offense and defense, bodily contact and safety.

In spite of success in reforming the rules, criticism of commercial abuses of football and other sports has lingered, and the complaints of commercialism in big-time college sports are reminiscent of the criticisms in the early 1900s. Although the NCAA was in the 1940s given broader investigative and enforcement powers, problems have persisted. Professors and coaches do not love one another, and some college presidents face pressures—and quandaries—similar to those of their counterparts in the era of Charles Eliot and Frederick Jackson Turner.