Did Teddy Roosevelt Save American Football?

In the wake of over a dozen football-related deaths in 1905, President Teddy Roosevelt stepped in, and threatened football leaders that if they didn’t make the game safer, he’d ban it. They implemented reforms, and Rough Rider Teddy gets the credit for saving American football from itself. But is that what happened, or is it far more complicated and historically interesting than that? In today’s show, let’s explore how the American style of football started and developed, why it was so violent, and why it was reformed in the early 20th century.

It only takes a cursory look at the history of American football to raise questions about the history of serious and deadly injury in America’s favorite sport.

Native Americans played all sorts of games, including ones similar to other football, in other parts of the world. But the game that eventually developed into American football was more or less brought over by Europeans, and early games in colonial North America most closely resemble those played in England at in the 15th and 16th centuries. These were known by names such as, “town ball,” “mob ball,” and variations of those two. They usually involved large groups of men, forming two teams, and trying to advance a ball made from an animal’s bladder over a certain line or into a certain goal.

American colleges and universities took to the game very early, and the game’s development became mostly a college and prep-school affair. Before the Civil War, it was variations of the mob ball or town ball, involving dozens of players on each side trying to advance the ball toward a goal or goal line. It was a slow grind between one large group trying to, essentially, force the ball across a goal line through brute group force, and the other large group trying to stop them. And it was a violent, chaotic game, tamed only slightly by intermittent rules that varied from town to town or college to college.

Alarmed at the number of serious injuries, and perhaps the mob-like atmosphere of mob ball, both Harvard and Yale banned football in 1860. And a number of colleges followed suit. Secondary schools kept playing, though, as did irregular groups of “town boys” in much of the north-east. Eventually, the game played in many Boston neighborhoods and schools combined the “running” style of play that had been favored by some college teams, with the “kicking” style favored by others. This so-called “Boston game” perked the interest of college students in the north-east, and, by the late 1860s, both Harvard and Yale had brought football back. Other elite colleges did the same (some of them playing solely a running version, and some playing a kicking version).

These new versions of football relied far less on group force, opened up the game by advancing the ball relatively quickly, and were higher scoring. Football became popular and spread south and west. A number of big colleges, such as Michigan, developed excellent teams. Starting in the 1879, intercollegiate organizations developed the game further and made the rules more uniform. Walter Camp, a former Yale player and coach, convinced a number of important organizations to institute changes, such as lines of scrimmage, down and distance rules more or less became the foundation of what we know as American football today.

And it was in the late, late 19th Century that two future US Presidents became interested in football, how it was being played, and, eventually, how to reform it to be a better, and safer, game. We mentioned Teddy Roosevelt in the beginning, and that’s who’s often credited with forcing changes in the game. But in the 1890s, good old Woodrow Wilson started showing a strong interest in football, especially as it was played at his university, Princeton. Neither had played the game while college students, because of injuries and physical limitations, but they liked it immensely.

“I believe it develops more moral qualities than any other game of athletics,” Wilson said during a debate about the future of college sports. And he went on to trumpet football’s ability to sharpen the innate attributes of “precision, decision, presence of mind, and endurance” in young men.

Teddy Roosevelt started to worry about the some college administrators being hostile to football. It was unsafe, and it took the focus of students away from their studies, college leaders argued, and Teddy was worried they would get rid of it permanently. In 1895, he wrote to Walter Camp, the Yale football supreme-o who’s often called the father of American football, “Of all games…I personally like foot ball the best, and I would rather see my boys play it than see them play any other. I have no patience with people with the people who declaim against it because it necessitates rough and occasional injuries.”

But Wilson and Roosevelt’s keen support of football cut no mustard with those in charge at the time. Even with more organization and better rules, football was still a very rough game by the end of the nineteenth century. The annual Army-Navy and Harvard-Yale games were suspended for a few years in the 1890s because of the number of serious injuries. A few players even died. Most widely reported at the time was a University of Georgia player, who died from receiving _several_ concussions during a game against Virginia in 1897. In the wake of his death, the Georgia legislature passed a bill to ban football, but the governor vetoed it.

The game of football of 1900-ish was starting to find itself in a classic American conundrum. It had spread across the country by this time, was popular in colleges and in secondary schools, and yet the injuries and even deaths that came from playing the game were starting to raise alarm (as they had in the late 1850s). There were different statistics reported in different newspapers, but one thing seems certain. Incidents of serious injury and death increased to the point where there were 18 reported deaths and 159 serious injuries directly related to playing American football in 1905, and there had been a total of 45 deaths since 1900. Newspapers reported that this was much higher than in previous years, and that something must be done about the problem.

There was no better solution, and no better story, than for the President of the United States, Teddy Roosevelt, that old Rough Rider from his time during the Spanish-American War, to haul the presidents of important football colleges into the Oval Office, give them a stern talking to, and threaten to ban the game unless they changed the way it was played. Keep football manly, Teddy told them, but cut out the extremes. Chastened, those college presidents slunk away, and reformed their game. Teddy Roosevelt had saved football from itself. In fact, as recently as 2012, History.com, the webpage of the History Channel, had an article entitled “How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football.”

That’s the story, anyway. Some reports of this period even have President Roosevelt responding in horror to the picture of a bloodied and battered college football player, and springing into action. But, as we’ve said so many times on this show — that’s the myth. The real story is more subtle and complicated.

In addition to these rising concerns about the safety of football (and what to do about it), and after his own son, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., had suffered a cut over one of his eyes while practising for Harvard, the President decided to have a White House meeting with some of the leading coaches in football to see if the extremes of the game could be blunted. Held on October 9th, the meeting was designed to encourage football’s leaders reform the game, _not_ a threat to ban it if they didn’t get their act together. By all accounts of the meeting, Teddy lectured them, but did not threaten to ban the game. And anyway, he didn’t have the power to do that. Congress could outlaw it, but that was very unlikely. Further, Roosevelt didn’t swing his big stick at recalcitrant college coaches and demand drastic changes. He told them what he thought needed to be changed, but what he was really trying to do was give them the impetus to go back to their campuses and fix the game themselves.

Nothing happened immediately, but a when a young Union college halfback named Harold Moore died of a cerebral hemorrhage after a kick to the head during a November game against NYU, public ire against the game rose again. Some major colleges banned it. The Secretary of War at the time, William Howard Taft (who would succeed Teddy Roosevelt as President in 1909), said that he would run any cadet out of West Point if he played rough football. And major college sports historians consider the shock of the death of Harold Moore to have been much more important in bringing about changes than Teddy’s White House “pressure.”

Some important Football leaders met again on in late December 1905, but this time without Roosevelt present. They formed the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States (alter the National Collegiate Athletic Association), and proposed a series of changes, including the forward pass, which further opened up the the game and lessened injuries that arose from “scrum-like” formations. Even so, injuries continued. In fact, 1909 was the high point of fatalities, with 26 players dying from football-related injuries.

It was at this point, 1909, that Woodrow Wilson got more directly involved — but as the President of Princeton University, not President of the United States. (Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why his contributions are much less well-known). One of the problems that had made changes to the game less effective (even by 1909) was that Harvard, Yale, and Princeton had actually stayed out of the December 1905 meetings, and had not joined the new National Collegiate Athletic Association. Partly in an effort to put themselves back in a leadership role in 1909, the Big Three Ivy League Universities attended the 1910 meetings that dealt with the spike in deaths and injuries in 1909, and joined the push for further changes.

Wilson took a leading role in that 1910 meeting. Again, even though he was an instrumental figure, he did this as Princeton’s president, and that didn’t command as much attention as being President of the US, as Teddy had been.

Wilson’s influence and power seems to have been the crucial force behind getting genuinely effective changes to the game in place. This was because he attacked the problem on two fronts, rather than just one. Roughly half of those college presidents at the meeting wanted to ban football because they felt that it took male students’ minds off of studying. Wilson said that reformed football would be a benefit to academic life because it could truly reflect what he thought of as the benefits of football — sharpening concentration and all those Wilsonian things I mentioned earlier. He spent the other half of his time at the meeting on the safety aspect, which was what the football-friendly colleges wanted – change without abolition. This was an attempt to reform the rough play of the game in order to quiet the growing percentage of public opinion that wanted to ban the game in the wake of the 1909 death toll.

Wilson was very successful in convincing both groups that a new type of football would fix both problems. And so reforms were instituted.

Essentially, the 1910 changes “opened up” the game even further. The remaining elements of what was called “mass play” (crowds or scrums of players trying to move the ball forward by brute force) were eliminated. Many of the restrictions on the new “forward pass” were cut out, and the game became “more attractive,” which is the phrase Wilson used to describe his ultimate goal.

Wilson, therefore, deserves more credit than Teddy Roosevelt for saving American football from itself. But, again, one of the things we decry here at the Buzzkill Institute is the “great person” theory of history. Sure, Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt before him played important roles in improving football. But dozens and dozens of college football coaches, and college administrators, did most of the actual work in developing changes in the game, testing out different reform options on the field itself, and then bringing those ideas to the conferences and meetings. And that doesn’t even take into account the hundreds of players who tried all these things out on the gridiron, and who may have (indeed, very probably did) made good suggestions for improving play.

Eventually, further rule refinements and the development of tactics that emphasized running and passing and higher scoring brought the annual number of fatalities at the top levels of football down. Helmets were only gradually introduced after 1915, and not required in college play until 1939, and in the pros until 1943.

During all that time between the late 1940s and the beginning of the 21st century, not enough people really knew the scientific and medical details of severe head trauma. As players became bigger, stronger, and faster, and as techniques of training and practice became stratospherically more intense, long-term damage was almost bound to surface. People seemed to know that football was at least somewhat hard on the brain. Lyndon Johnson was reported to have said about Gerald Ford, a leading Republican Congressman, and eventually Vice-President and then President, but who had been a University of Michigan football star in his youth, “He’s a nice fellow but he spent too much time playing football without a helmet.” But practically nothing was done about it.

The head and brain injury crisis has hit American football hard, and has left football administrators, medical experts, and commentators struggling for answers. Even the future of the game as we know it seems in danger, especially if you listen to football pundits. Of course, the historians here at the Institute don’t pretend to be able to offer answers to these problems.

Over recent decades, improved equipment (especially helmets) may have forestalled a rash of deaths like those in Roosevelt and Wilson’s day. But if the experience from the 1890s to the 1910s is any guide, immediate changes in the nature of the game are needed. Players continually crashing into each other during high speed kick-off returns is often cited as a serious, specific place where problems start. But much of how the _whole_ game is structured needs attention. And by this I mean, the nature of practice, with players smashing into each other repetitively (and over a period of _years_ for elite players), must also change.

If we’re going to have a Teddy Roosevelt to ride to the rescue, and a Woodrow Wilson to reason and press football leaders to make changes, it had better be soon.

Buzzkill Bookshelf:

John Sayle Watterson, College Football: History, Spectacle, Controversy (2002).

In this comprehensive history of America’s popular pastime, John Sayle Watterson shows how college football in more than one hundred years has evolved from a simple game played by college students into a lucrative, semi-professional enterprise. With a historian’s grasp of the context and a novelist’s eye for the telling detail, Watterson presents a compelling portrait rich in anecdotes, colorful personalities, and troubling patterns.

He tells how the infamous Yale-Princeton “fiasco” of 1881, in which Yale forced a 0-0 tie in a championship game by retaining possession of the ball for the entire game, eventually led to the first-down rule that would begin to transform Americanized rugby into American football. He describes the kicks and punches, gouged eyes, broken collarbones, and flagrant rule violations that nearly led to the sport’s demise (including such excesses as a Yale player who wore a uniform soaked in blood from a slaughterhouse). And he explains the reforms of 1910, which gave official approval to a radical new tactic traditionalists were sure would doom the game as they knew it―the forward pass.

As college football grew in the booming economy of the 1920s, Watterson explains, the flow of cash added fuel to an already explosive mix. Coaches like Knute Rockne became celebrities in their own right, with highly paid speaking engagements and product endorsements. At the same time, the emergence of the first professional teams led to inevitable scandals involving recruitment and subsidies for student-athletes. Revelations of illicit aid to athletes in the 1930s led to failed attempts at reform by the fledgling NCAA in the postwar “Sanity Code,” intended to control abuses by permitting limited subsidies to college players but which actually paved the way for the “free ride” many players receive today.

Watterson also explains how the growth of TV revenue led to college football programs’ unprecedented prosperity, just as the rise of professional football seemed to relegate college teams to “minor league” status. He explores issues of gender and race, from the shocked reactions of spectators to the first female cheerleaders in the 1930s to their successful exploitation by Roone Arledge three decades later. He describes the role of African-American players, from the days when Southern schools demanded all-white teams (and Northern schools meekly complied); through the black armbands and protests of the 60s; to one of the game’s few successful, if limited, reforms, as black athletes dominate the playing field while often being shortchanged in the classroom.

Today, Watterson observes, colleges’ insatiable hunger for revenues has led to an abuse-filled game nearly indistinguishable from the professional model of the NFL. After examining the standard solutions for reform, he offers proposals of his own, including greater involvement by faculty, trustees, and college presidents. Ultimately, however, Watterson concludes that the history of college football is one in which the rules of the game have changed, but those of human nature have not.

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