In honor of our imminent national celebration of democracy, SLF is taking a look at one of the most famous intersections (or collisions) of politics and football.
It’s no surprise that more than a few football players entered politics. Just looking at presidents, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, Ford, and Reagan all played college ball, and AFL Hall-of-Famer Jack Kemp was a career politician with several White House runs to his name. A less common occurrence is a tenured politician making football a policy issue, though that’s exactly what happened to the sport during its early years.
The late 1800’s and early 1900’s were a turbulent era highlighted by a tenuous confluence of innovation and public scrutiny that was very much like today’s atmosphere. Formative football was a rush-based game in the mold of rugby, though it eschewed free-flowing play and the gridlock of the scrum, two factors that made football far deadlier than its continental cousin. The danger was exemplified by the “Flying Wedge,” a Harvard special-teams innovation that evolved into an offensive play where the entire team formed an inverted “V” around the ball carrier, then took a running start and crashed into a single defender.
Plays like this, along with a constant stream of unregulated violence you’d expect from a game where “unnecessary roughness” was a foreign concept, took a heavy toll on players’ health. The turning point for the sport came in 1905, when as many as 25 football players died during games across the country. Public outrage was inevitable, and among the most incensed groups were the faculty members at Harvard University, who had collectively demanded that football be either banned from the school or made safer through a series of rules changes.
At the time, Harvard’s passion for the sport might be best described as equivalent to the pigskin fervor of an Alabama or Notre Dame today. That passion extended to alum Teddy Roosevelt, who by then was halfway through his tenure as POTUS. His love of football reflected the mindset of a man who in his prime saw war as an adventurous undertaking, and in his later years embarked on an ill-ending Amazon expedition that may have ultimately shortened his life: to Roosevelt, football—a slog of competitive violence ended by triumph or defeat—was an expression of the inherent virtues of the trial by fire, and unmatched by anything short of actual combat in its ability to forge men from the bruised bodies of boys.
Roosevelt wasn’t going to see his school neuter itself by ending the sport, though he also recognized there was more at stake than just Harvard’s claim to campus manliness. Harvard’s status in the sport was so great that it was essentially football’s poster child; when coupled with growing public uncertainty over the game’s brutality and popularity, a decision to suspend the Crimson squad could very well have led to the wholesale abandonment of the game along the east coast. Leading the faculty charge was Harvard’s president, Charles Eliot, who publicly lamented that football turned bright young men into “powerful animals.” It was a formidable situation, even for the President of the United States.
Roosevelt’s method for saving the sport in many ways exemplified his motto of “walk softly, but carry a big stick.” Rather than confronting or making demands, he worked as a deal-maker and behind-the-scenes organizer and mediator for the schools’ governing officials, with the weight of the presidency backing up his work. He grounded his work in frequent exchanges with Walter Camp, and beginning in 1905 and working through the spate of deaths that could’ve derailed his mission, Roosevelt shuttled football experts from Harvard, Yale, and Princeton to the White House in order to lay the foundation for a safer game. The focus was on eliminating plays that, to quote a New York Times article from 1893, relied on “a half ton of bone and muscle coming into collision with a man weighing 160 or 170 pounds.”
Even after formal meetings ended, the President stayed in regular contact with coaches and administrators so as to guide the game’s developments. Perhaps his most important allies were Harvard coach Bill Reid, whose work mollified Harvard’s faculty and allowed the Crimson to continue taking the field, and Paul Dashiell, an official for the Harvard-Yale game and member of the sport’s collegiate rules committee. The football schools eventually coalesced into a more inclusive rules committee that finally began to address the sports’ safety concerns.
Successive years of discussion and modification led to the creation of something very recognizable as modern football. Several concepts we today take for granted either came into being or saw their roots established thanks in part to Roosevelt’s work. In a harbinger of rules for restricting the number of offensive players in the backfield, the Flying Wedge and its variants were banned. The line of gain was increased from 5 to 10 yards, which reduced the reward of grinding collision play. The neutral zone was made standard, and the forward pass made legal to encourage offenses that spread the field. Even the loose coalition of schools behind these changes has a special place in history, as it eventually evolved into the NCAA. It’s likely none of these things would’ve happened without the intervention of Roosevelt; there’s even a distinct possibility that football would now be categorized as an American analogue to chariot races and gladiatorial combat had he not stepped in.
And here’s a final bit of trivia. Among the university leaders Roosevelt worked with, the president of Princeton was a key figure and a spirited fan of the sport. His name was Woodrow Wilson.