Did Theodore Roosevelt really save Football?

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The headline at the top of the right hand column in The Chicago Sunday Tribune on November 26, 1905 screamed, "Football Year's Death Harvest - Record Shows That Nineteen Players Have Been Killed; One Hundred Thirty-seven Hurt - Two Are Slain Saturday." [1] Contemporary numbers differ on the exact number of football fatalities suffered on the playing field in 1905: Nine? Nineteen? Twenty-one? But young men were dying playing football.

At the time that meant scholastic football. The National Football League was fifteen years away from forming in a Canton, Ohio Hupmobile dealership. There were semi-professional and club football in the first decade of the 20th century but those were local games played by grown men and that was a different matter. College football, however, was drawing tens of thousands of spectators to games, joining baseball and horse racing as the biggest sports of their day.

On that particular Saturday 16-year old Robert Brown took off on a run around end in a game in Sedalia, Missouri when he was met by heavy opposition. According to an account in the Mexico Missouri Message, Brown was "thrown heavily upon the ground, alighting on his neck and shoulders." He never regained consciousness. [2]

Playing for Judson High School in Marshall, Indiana, 18-year old Carl Osborn was killed making a tackle when a broken rib pierced his heart. The carnage grew to three when William Moore, a right halfback from Union College in Schenectady, New York died in a New York City hospital from a cerebral hemorrhage six hours after he carried the ball into the line and was kicked in the head in a game against New York University. [3]

College Football in the Early 1900s

Immediately upon learning of the news New York University Chancellor H.M. McCracken wired Charles W. Eliot, the President of Harvard University, and called for a "meeting of heads of universities, with the object of reforming or abolishing the game." [4] The "game" in 1905 would be scarcely recognized as football today. There was no forward passing and so the ball itself looked more like a watermelon. Only five yards was required to make a first down and the typical strategy was to bludgeon the opposition in an attempt to gain that precious fifteen feet of territory. The most popular technique was to lead the ball carrier into the line with a flying wedge, where players would interlock arms and form a battering ram. Players sported no padding, no helmets, no protection of any sort.

The year 1905 was not an aberration. The Washington Post had counted 45 football-related deaths in the five years prior to the 1905 season. [5] Most causes were listed as internal injuries or broken necks and spines. Even given the fact that knowledge of such injuries was still rudimentary and many of those deaths may have been averted with modern medical intervention, the numbers were alarming. Far fewer boys played football in 1905 than today.

Football’s First Fan

The brutal early game of football did have one great supporter, however, and he lived in the White House. Theodore Roosevelt had been asthmatic and sickly as a child but built up his body through what he referred to as "the strenuous life." He could not do the same for his nearsightedness and so he was unable to play football for Harvard University, which had just started playing the game, as an undergraduate. Roosevelt always remained a fan and even intervened from his post as New York City police commissioner to resuscitate the annual Harvard-Yale game after it had been suspended for two years in the 1890s due to exceptional violence. [6]

In a 1903 speech President Roosevelt defended football in a speech when he said, “I believe in rough games and in rough, manly sports. I do not feel any particular sympathy for the person who gets battered about a good deal so long as it is not fatal.” [7] That belief apparently extended to his own son who suffered a broken nose while playing for the Harvard freshman team in that 1905 season. Some contemporary accounts insisted the bloody blow had been deliberately rendered.

Roosevelt Takes Action

Roosevelt made his first initiative to clean up football on October 9, 1905 by summoning the coaches and administrators of Harvard, Yale and Princeton - the big three collegiate powers - to Washington for a football summit. He admonished his guests to "set an example of fair play" for gridiron behavior across the country. Roosevelt may have threatened to ban football with an executive order. More likely, the militaristically inclined Roosevelt pointed out the need to fix football immediately and pointed those in charge in that direction. The schools issued public statements pledging a clean game and denouncing brutality.

As the season played out the deeds on the field did not match the words. In the Harvard-Yale game an especially egregious penalty against Yale for knocking Harvard punt returner Francis Burr unconscious with a punch on a fair catch precipitated Eliot's announcement that Harvard would no longer play Yale in football. [8] By the end of the season Duke, Northwestern and Columbia dropped football and out west Stanford and California started playing rugby instead.

In December, the scheduled conference at New York University to reform football was falling apart. Theodore Roosevelt had brokered the peace for the Russo-Japanese War for which he would be the first statesman to be awarded the Noble Peace Prize [9], but it is likely he found those historic foes no less intransigent than the powers-that-be at Yale and Harvard.

Yale was represented by Walter Camp who had laid out the rules for the game and the "Father of American Football" was in no mood to see those rules tampered with by anyone. Heading the Harvard contingent was President Eliot who had demonized football as "more brutalizing than prizefighting, cockfighting or bullfighting" and was more than willing to see the sport go away. For his part, Roosevelt favored reform but worried in private correspondence that the his alma mater wanted to "emasculate football" and hoped that the future game would never be played "on too ladylike a basis." [10]

The Aftermath

Roosevelt pushed for the meeting to go on and 19 new rules were hashed out for the 1906 season. They included the establishment of a neutral zone now called the "line of scrimmage" before each play, body-breaking mass formations were outlawed and the first-down distance was stretched to 10 yards. Most revolutionary, the forward pass was introduced into the game. Football was still dangerous - there would be 11 deaths on the field in 1906 and 11 more in 1907 - but the evolution of football was underway. [11]

So did Theodore Roosevelt really save football? If there truly was a "change or die" moment for the sport in 1905 he was certainly the catalyst who brought the saviors together and deserves credit for that. At the very least he elevated the severity of the problem to Presidential importance. That alone provided impetus for football to move beyond its brutal 19th century origins.

References

  1. ”Football Year's Death Harvest,” The Chicago Sunday Tribune, November 26, 1905, page 1
  2. Gordon, Aaron, “Did Football Cause 20 Deaths In 1905? Re-Investigating A Serial Killer", Deadspin, January 22, 1914
  3. ”Union College Man Dies of Football Injuries,” Los Angeles Herald, November 26, 1905, page 1
  4. ”Union College Man Dies of Football Injuries,” Los Angeles Herald, November 26, 1905, page 1
  5. Zezima, Katie, ”How Teddy Roosevelt helped save football,” WashingtonPost.com, May 29, 2014
  6. Klein, Christopher, ”How Teddy Roosevelt helped save football,” history.com, September 6, 2012
  7. Klein, Christopher, ”How Teddy Roosevelt helped save football,” history.com, September 6, 2012
  8. Benson, Mark, T.R and Football Reform, College Football Historical Society, May 2003
  9. ”Theodore Roosevelt - Facts,” Nobelprize.org
  10. Klein, Christopher, ”How Teddy Roosevelt helped save football,” history.com, September 6, 2012
  11. Klein, Christopher, ”How Teddy Roosevelt helped save football,” history.com, September 6, 2012
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