When A President Threatened to Abolish Football in the United States


Teddy Roosevelt Cut A Manly Figure as a Collegiate and Liked College Football But That Didn't Prevent Him From Threatening the Game with a Big Stick

1st Football Game Between Rutgers and Princeton Nov 6, 1869

On This Date in History:  President Theodore Roosevelt had an affinity for football.  It provided physical fitness to build bodies and competition to build character.  He liked the way that it taught teamwork and inspired individuals to never give up.  American football had been in its development stages during the 19th century and at least 10 of his Roughriders listed their occupations as football players when they signed up in 1898.  While the beginnings of the NFL did not come about with George Halas until 1920, professional football in America can be traced to as early as 1892 and college football to 1869.  Perhaps all those football players joining up with Teddy Roosevelt to fight the Spanish is an indication of the rather wild and woolly landscape surrounding college football at the time.  Now, you have to remember, at the turn of the century western colleges and universities were in a relatively fledgling state and the dominance of higher education resided in what we now call the Ivy League.  That also held true for college football and the three reigning powers of the gridiron were Harvard, Yale and Princeton.

Robert "Tiny" Maxwell in 1905

The presidents of those institutions as well as others were scratching their heads on this date in 1905 as the previous day they had been taken to the proverbial woodshed by the young President of the United States.   You see, President Roosevelt had seen a photograph of Swarthmore College lineman Bob Maxwell who had been savagely beaten during a game.  Seems that Penn knew that the agile, 250 pound Maxwell was the best player on Swarthmore so the team focused its effort on everyone pounding Maxwell early and often.  The photo of him staggering off the field  was so graphic that the Old Roughrider must have thought that the game had gotten too rough.  As it turns out, he had good reason.  Players wore very little padding and helmets were nothing more than a leather cap.  Routinely, slugging and punching took place on the field and gang tackling was rampant.  A favorite play was the “flying wedge” in which an entire team formed a  V and plowed down the field like a tank. The players would often lock arms or even grab on to one another’s belts equipped with special handles.  More often than not, the result was players strewn across the field and slugfests erupting.   In 1905, there was roughly one-fifth the number of college football players as there are today, yet, 18 were killed and 159 severely injured in that one year alone. 

The "Flying Wedge" Formation

So, on October 9, 1905, Teddy summoned representatives from Yale, Harvard and Princeton to the White House.  When they arrived, he may have walked softly but he certainly brandished the Big Stick.  He told them that if footbal could not put an end to on-field brutality, then he would abolish the game with an Executive Order.   It’s kinda funny that young men being maimed or killed on the field did not make the coaches and presidents of the schools to consider changes and  it took a roar from the Bully Pulpit got their attention.   They should have noticed all by themselves that interest in football was on the decline due to the violence, high risk of injury and potential for fatalities.  On the West Coast, Stanford and Cal had  even dropped football due  in favor of English Rugby.   So, the following day the coaches got to work on making changes in order to save their jobs if not to help save some lives. 

Football Has Never Been For the Faint of Heart

First, the American Football Rules Committee was formed with the three influential forces on the governing body rising in the form of Walter Camp,  Harvard’s William Reid and Captain Palmer Pierce of the United States Military Academy.  The committee established a neutral zone along a line of scrimmage between the opposing teams with a requirement that at least 6 men had to be on that line.   The distance required for a 1st down was changed to 10 yards instead of 5.  The forward pass was put into the rules and, perhaps most importantly, mass formations were banned as was gang tackling.  Game times were reduced to one hour with two 30-minute halves.  While it doesn’t appear to monumental on paper, these rules changes had some dramatic results.  The forward pass was used sparingly but the defenses were forced to weaken their lines due to the threat of the pass.   That little neutral zone reduced the number of fights that broke out and the 6 man requirement took away the mass momentum plays.  Two yards and a cloud of dust off-tackle plays became more common.   With a less-potent ground attack, the additional five yards required for a new set of downs resulted in more frequent punts and an increased use of the field goal, which were worth 4 points at the time, compared to 5 points for a touchdown.   In 1906, only 6 players were killed and 3 of those were Ivy Leaguers who died in fistfights. 

Walter Camp Did Not Outlaw Touchdown Celebrations

The committee changed its name to the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States when it met in 1906 before eventually settling on the National Collegiate Athletic Association moniker.   Whatever the name, conditions for football improved and Roosevelt did not ban the game.  Nevertheless, the NCAA football rules committee became much more vigilant. In 1907, the number of deaths on the football field were up again to eleven.   In reaction to the new rules, the Minnesota Shift was developed in which the line and backs would shift, sometimes twice, prior to the ball being snapped in a somewhat intricate manner.  The maneuvers were designed to outflank the defense.   The death toll rose to 33 in 1909 (The NY Times via the Chicago Tribune claimed 26 deaths at the time) and it was that year, specifically a game between Harvard and Yale in November 1909, that veteran sportswriter Frank Deford says was the real turning point in the sport.  So, in 1910, new rules were implemented that made the line of scrimmage requirement 7 men and reduced the reward for a field goal to 3 points. By 1912, the touchdown was changed to 6 points.   Pushing and pulling the ball carrier was disallowed and players running interlocked interference was banned.  The flying tackle, which called for a tackler to leave his feet, was also put on the shelf.  But, they did not ban touchdown celebrations.

Weather Bottom Line:  Look for Sunday and Monday to be carbon copies with lots of sun, a cool start and an afternoon high about 40 degress higher than the morning as it pushes toward 90.  A trof comes through Monday night but its too dry to provide rain.  The temperatures Tuesday should back off a shade though to the mid 80’s.  Keep in  mind the normal high is about 72.  Wednesday, we get a system from the southwest coming up that kicked off some severe weather in the Southern Plains but it will be too dry for even it to give us more than just a smattering of showers.  But, cooler air filters in behind it and we go to near average or slightly above average temperatures for the end of the week into the weekend.  We need rain.  We’ve had .20″ of rain since Sept. 1.

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2 Responses

  1. Nice piece, indeed. Very relevant to today’s Penn State debacle.

  2. Thanx

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