How did American football develop?

Figure 1. Depiction of Episkyros

American football, while a relatively young sport, has developed and evolved over a long time. While we tend to think of it as a uniquely American sport, its origin and history demonstrate that slowly evolved from sports that played and ancient times.

Beginnings of Football

Ball games or games involving an object a player possesses while others try to tackle or wrestle have a long history. We know of games such as Harpastum, which was Roman ball game probably similar to a Greek ball game called Episkyros (Figure 1).[1] We do not know the exact rules for each of these games but it seemed to involve a ball where two teams would try to score or place the ball in a position that would register the game's points while the other team would tackle and try to prevent the other team from scoring. In essence, the basic concept is the same as sports such as rugby and American football. During this time period, the idea of using an air-filled balls developed.

Later in the Middle Ages, in Europe, different types of ball games developed where towns or cities competing with one another. In these game, which likely had different rules in various places, teams would form and a ball would be used where the goals were likely similar to Harpastum. This was a type of mob ball or mob football, where towns would try to win bragging rights by beating their rival towns. A few images from the Medieval period show it was a type of team sport.[2] Essentially, ball based games where people tackled each other have been around for a very long time.

Later Developments

Figure 2. Auburn vs. Georgia football game in 1895.

Up until the 19th century, many versions of what can be called mob football existed. In fact, this variety of football has muddled the story of how American football developed, but historians believe that the formation of American football was ultimately tied to the development of rugby. Older American universities, particularly Harvard and Yale, had developed student football traditions that resembled a cross between rugby and mob football.[3] These games initially had few clear rules except masses of students would play together and two sides would compete to possess a ball and try to win points with this ball. The games were more like soccer but much more violent. In fact, some places began banning the sports due to the excessive violence.

Things began to change, however, by 1869, when Rutgers and Princeton played what effectively became known as the first intercollegiate football game.[4]. This game was still very different from American football but was a watershed because it standardized the game, with rules being set prior to the match. Furthermore, early coaches, names of positions, and many early strategies have their origin with this game, effectively making it a key moment in the history of American football. Nevertheless, scoring involved kicking the ball, which was the origin of the field goal, and the two teams each had 25 players. In 1876, an association of Harvard, Columbia, and Yale formed a group that formalized rules, although kicking was the way in which a team would score points. That was the year the first formal Thanksgiving game was also played. By 1875, what became the touchdown was invented. It was only by 1881 that the touchdown took precedent over the field goal. Throwing the football first occurred in 1895, which only emerged as a team was desperate to score before time ran out.[5]

By this time, many universities in the east coast and increasingly in the west coast began to adopt the emerging game of American football (Figure 2). However, this was still considered an illegal move and it was not until 1906 that the forward pass was formally adopted, although limitations existed with how it was applied and was still a minor part of the game. By 1905, what became the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), which helped to not only organize games around the country but helped establish more formal rules, was formed. By then, more than 432 cities had some form of American football team. Even the concept of the halftime show emerged by 1907 in Champaign, Illinois. The popularity of football may have reflect American social norms at the time, which included embracing leisure activities in greater numbers and the social Darwinian aspects of the game, which emphasized competition and fitness for the best teams and players.

In 1909, a touchdown worth six points and field goal worth three were formalized. At this point, American football developed more greatly as the game was opened up more. In fact, as more universities adopted football, it also became an interest for universities to protect their players and students. A crisis in 1905-1906 led to the realization there needed to be changes in the rules in American football to make it less violent. Thus, many of the rules were intended to protect players but they also helped radically change the game.[6] It may seem ironic but it was finding new rules to protect players that allowed American football to begin to look even more different from its rugby counterpart. In particular, rules protecting the passer became of greater importance. Rules for catching the ball and who can catch the ball downfield were made easier by the 1910s. Further crises of safety, where at the high school level many players died or were severely injured, influenced more reforms.[7]

In particular, the introduction of the line of scrimmage and number of players that had to align there has its origin in this crisis. At times in the 1910s, American football was severely criticized for its excessive violence and what appeared to be overly competitive behavior that emphasized winning at all costs. World War I, however, in a way made those sentiments less important, as competition and athletics were seen as ways for men to become better soldiers. This helped to make the game once again very popular and allowed it to survive its crises years regarding safety.[8]

Emergence of the Modern Game

What ultimately became the National Football League originated in 1920 as the American Professional Football Association (APFA).[9] Fourteen teams were the founding members but it soon expanded to twenty-two. The collegiate game, however, continued to influence how the game was played. By 1922, the NFL was formally named. By the 1930s, passing rules were modified further that arguably made the game more like the modern one. The removal of a penalty or loss of five yards for a second incomplete pass and a loss of possession for an incomplete pass in the end zone now made passing a more important factor in American football. This helped to open up the game and subsequent rule changes helped to facilitate passing.

The 1930s saw more formal rules and procedures that further professionalized the NFL. A championship game was added in 1932. By 1941 there was a commissioner. After World War II, the NFL began to develop more teams. In 1958, the championship game was broadcast live on TV, which turned out to be a key moment for the NFL. By 1959, the newer American Football League had begun to compete with the NFL. This competition, however, eventually led to the NFL merging with the AFL, as the AFL found success in bringing high profile players. The merged system eventually formed what today are the NFC and AFC within the NFL. During that time the rules did refine, although a lot of the rules now adapted to television (e.g, timeouts), as audiences became to be a big part of the NFL's revenue.[10]


The evolution of American football has been varied. Key influences were likely Greco-Roman games that left their mark in Europe. With the Medieval Period, those games emerged to form the beginnings of what would become rugby and soccer (or football). However, within that were the origins of American football. In the United States, it was concern over safety that led to rules that shaped what became American football and how it differed from its European counterparts (i.e., rugby and soccer). The formalization of rules and social events such as war (e.g., World War I) further shaped the sport. The rapid expansion of popularity in the early 20th century eventually led to professional teams, which served as the foundation of the modern NFL. Along the way after the founding of the NFL, rules were refined, often influenced by the medium of television.


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  1. For more on these early Greco-Roman games, see: Nardo, Don. 1999. Greek and Roman Sport. World History Series. San Diego, CA: Lucent Books.
  2. For more on Medieval ball games, see: Curry, Graham, and Eric Dunning. 2015. Association Football: A Study in Figurational Sociology. Routledge Research in Sports History. New York: Routledge.
  3. For more on the origins and influence of mob football, rugby, and other related sports, see: The DNA of Rugby Football A Short History of the Origin of Rugby Football. 2015. Partridge Africa.
  4. For more on the first game and early history of American football, see: Whittingham, Richard. 2001. Rites of Autumn: The Story of College Football. New York: Free Press, pg. 30
  5. For more on the late 19th century development of American football, see: Coombs, Danielle Sarver, and Bob Batchelor, eds. 2013. American History through American Sports: From Colonial Lacrosse to Extreme Sports. Santa Barbara, Calif: Praeger.
  6. For more on the early 20th century developments of American football, see: Dyreson, Mark, and Jaime Schultz. 2015. American National Pastimes: A History.
  7. For more on injuries, see: Coombs, Danielle Sarver, and Bob Batchelor, eds. 2013. American History through American Sports: From Colonial Lacrosse to Extreme Sports. Santa Barbara, Calif: Praeger, p. 246.
  8. Watterson, John Sayle. 2000. College Football: History, Spectacle, Controversy. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, p. 143.
  9. For more on the emergence of modern professional American football, see: Delaney, Tim, and Tim Madigan. 2009. Sports: Why People Love Them! Lanham, Md: University Press of America, pg. 45.
  10. For a history of the NFL, see: Crepeau, Richard C. 2014.NFL Football: A History of America’s New National Pastime. Sport and Society. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.