Skip to main content

Inventing Modern Football

July 2024
15min read

SMU isn’t playing this season; men on the team were accepting money from alumni. That’s bad, of course; but today’s game grew out of even greater scandal.

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.

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.”

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.

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.”

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.

Unlike turn-of-the-century crises, violence plays a comparatively minor role in today’s turmoils. Rather, it is illegal payments to athletes, violations of academic standards, and drug abuse that bedevil athletic programs.

Yet despite the occasional scandal, it is doubtful that college football will ever again face such overwhelming pressure for change as it did during the critical half-decade eighty years ago.

Football as a Metaphor for War

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.