Part Two in a Series
Brain Injury in American Football: 130 Years of Knowledge and Denial
By Matt Chaney, ChaneysBlog.com
Posted Saturday, January 30, 2016
Revised Friday, April 6, 2018, for adding historical information such as original “heads up” tackling theory and the 1907 condemnation of football for juveniles by JAMA, doctors on editorial board for Journal of the American Medical Association
Copyright ©2018 by Matthew L. Chaney
II. 1900-1904: Doctors, Football Officials Clash Over Brain Injuries
III. 1900-1902: Football Brutality and Call For ‘Open Game’
IV. 1903: Football Officials Tout New Rules, Sell New Helmets
V. 1876-1900: Roosevelt Embraces ‘Strenuous Life,’ Football
VI. 1901-1904: Football Fan and Father in The White House
VII. 1905: Football Tempest Explodes on Presidential Intervention
VIII. 1905: Football Tempest Subsides on Presidential Instruction
IX. 1912: Forgetting Football TBI and Disease For Posterity
By outset of 1910, the official promise of “debrutalized” football had not produced for America. Football appeal was spiking, drawing millions of spectators and enticing thousands of players for games at college stadiums, school fields, and local parks. “Enthusiast” presidents, among the famous, lent vogue to football fandom while the popular press made celebrities of college players. But the injury plague persisted, for inherent risks of the collision sport.
Former president Theodore Roosevelt may have “saved” football in 1905, per that blossoming story, but only from destructive infighting and scattered abolitionists. Apparently no one could develop “Safer Football”—the headlined mission entrusted the game since Roosevelt’s intervention—and officials were acknowledging reality after years of failed policy.
“The majority of representatives want safer football,” said Amos Alonzo Stagg, University of Chicago head coach and member of the NCAA rules committee. “As to specific rules effecting this, it is impossible to say much. It’s easier to make attacks upon the rules… than to make the game safer.”
“Coach Stagg declares that there is a great demand for safer football,” intoned a newspaper commentator. “No doubt there is, and no doubt, too, there is as great a demand down below for a cooler hell.”
Another news writer faulted critics of football, for their “attitude” and nil help toward reform:
The game will have to be changed because of the fatalities and injuries of the last season . Many of the persons who are loudest in their demands to have alterations made, however, are those who cannot or do not suggest just what things should be done.
American “foot-ball” had blended rugby with soccer following the Civil War, and from 1880 onward officials struggled to control increasingly vicious field contact, along with managing hordes of player casualties. Various types of injury threatened football players in 1910, with doctors virtually powerless to treat lethal conditions such as brain hemorrhaging, spinal paralysis, and infection.
Traumatic brain injury [TBI] occurred routinely for the impacts and indirect “jars” above neckline. Players charged headlong into each other on every play, naturally and necessarily, ramming with forward leverage then slamming against ground. Thus countless brain injuries posed the greatest challenge to game organizers and medical professionals. Symptoms of TBI ranged in players from headache to hemorrhage, and diagnosis was sketchy with scant treatment option.
The so-called football experts had pursued several ideas to protect players, including reduction of head contact in blocking and tackling. Since the 1890s rules had been designed to foster “open play,” which many believed would lessen field risks. Colleges and schools were encouraged to station athletic trainers and doctors at sideline, and coaches tried to teach hitting with shoulders and chest.
For years the football experts had promoted helmets or “headgear,” armor designed largely by trainers and coaches to prevent trauma, foremost “concussion of the brain.”
Any positive results were negligible and public outcry rose anew in winter 1909-10. College rulemakers opened meetings in New York City amidst a flurry of football criticism, speculation for congressional hearings, and “radical changes” for high schools. Many game insiders said boys should not play until physical maturity around age 16.
“FOR SAFER FOOTBALL,” headlined The Washington Herald in the nation’s capital city, where prep coaches outlawed the forward pass and mandated penalty for tackling “above the shoulders.” Elsewhere, lawmakers, doctors, and clergymen sought bans of school and “pee wee” football.
Once again, the onus fell upon college coaches and administrators to act decisively, effectively.
“SAFER FOOTBALL AIM OF EXPERTS,” reminded a headline in North Dakota, accompanied by national report. “Protests have gone up from all parts of the country against the dangers of the game as now played.”
Brooklyn sports fan W.C. Taylor declared, “I want to make a football confession,” in his letter to The New York Times, continuing:
I have followed the ball and howled along the side lines with the noisiest enthusiasts, and waxed wrathful of the enemies of the game; but now, with a clearer and fairer view, although with no cooling whatsoever of my ‘sporting blood,’ I want to go on record as saying that football is the biggest fool of an institution in America as a sport.
But this angry fan wasn’t without hope for the game. His football criticism concluded in common fashion, denouncing “mass play,” the oft-heard scapegoat, and suggesting rule changes would fix the game.
1900-1904: Doctors, Football Officials Clash Over Brain Injuries
By turn of the 20th century, brain “concussion” was elemental of news events, including for criminal assaults and industrial accidents, according to an electronic review of historical newspapers by this investigator. Waves of TBI cases resulted from transportation mishaps involving horses, buggies, railroads, and the new motorcars.
Motorcyclists and aviators donned leather football helmets for protection while polo players wore cork headgear covered in cloth, like Dr. Livingstone in the jungle, hoping to soften their head-first falls from horseback.
Newspapers regularly reported sport TBI in the early 1900s, especially in boxing, football, baseball, and horse racing. Death in sport garnered biggest headlines, but concussed athletes in recovery were also newsworthy.
During football season, TBI incidents dotted the “sporting” pages, describing injury conditions of players such as dazed, confused, insensible, “knocked senseless,” “knocked out,” and concussed. Many cerebral casualties attempted returns to football with mixed results, documented in news.
“The concept of brain concussion had been traveling through common and medical knowledge for centuries,” science historian Emily A. Harrison, Harvard PhD, wrote for her article “The First Concussion Crisis: Head Injury and Evidence in Early American Football,” published by American Journal of Public Health in 2014. Harrison continued:
As early as the mid-16th century it had been defined as a blow resulting in escape of blood from ruptured tissue. By the early 19th century it was described as an “external violence” that caused “derangement of the brain.”
Medical knowledge of TBI advanced after the Civil War, driven by casualty studies of railroad accidents. Harrison noted:
[T]rain collisions, frequent in the late 19th century, had generated a large study population for observing long-term effects of concussions of the brain and spine. Physicians said that the new frequency for which they were observing concussions made the long-term behavioral consequences clinically visible—in children and adults.
The field collisions of American football—a sport that expanded throughout society coincident with rail transportation—produced numerous brain casualties as well. But the health problem was regarded indifferently by football officials, perhaps in part for lack of known treatment. TBI was recognizable in symptoms, by coaches, trainers and doctors, but then basically a mystery.
The medical field and football clashed over cerebral injury, pitting conventional specialists versus coaches, trainers, team doctors, and injured players themselves. Proper recovery time posed the prime question or sticking point.
Conservative medicine followed the Hippocratic ethic of Do no harm, exercising caution for cerebral disturbance of impact or shock, primarily a prescription of rest for days, weeks, even months. Dr. W.H. Earles, in a 1903 review for Journal of the American Medical Association [JAMA], wrote:
Clinical reports of competent observers, coupled with everyday experiences, have clearly demonstrated that blows or falls on the head may cause serious trouble, both present and prospective, without producing fracture to the skull wall.
Every case of recent head injury, however trivial it may appear, should, we believe, be treated with the greatest consideration, lest damage to hidden and important structures escape our attention, thus leaving a foundation for future trouble which too often is irreparable.
Turn-of-century medicine increasingly endorsed rest, careful recovery for brain-injury victims of all types. Doctors advised many concussed football players to sit out remainders of seasons, and some were told to quit entirely.
Contrarily, football personnel favored quick return for the brain-injured athlete, if side-lining him at all, and preferably under the authority of coaches and in-house technicians. Football trainers and hireling doctors were branching into their paradigm to become known as sports medicine, applying concepts beyond standard practice, and they assumed control in many casualty situations.
Such as the 1901 intercollegiate championship game between Harvard and Yale, before a record crowd of 37,000 at Cambridge, Mass. Both teams were affluent gridiron powers with trainers and doctors, and each saw a key player suffer TBI.
Harvard captain Dave Campbell, an All-American end, became “so groggy he did not see,” recounted The Washington Times, “but he did not leave the game.” Yale star John De Saulles was knocked unconscious while launching a “flying tackle” in goal-line defense. De Saulles experienced seizures on the sideline then revived briefly in a locker room, where reportedly “a doctor gave him an opiate and said that it was best for the boy to sleep it off.”
Following Harvard’s victory Saturday afternoon, doctors in Boston diagnosed De Saulles with a “slight attack of cerebral concussion” and admitted him to Massachusetts General Hospital. On Sunday morning, the “Yale football association” sent for De Saulles, intending to take him home with the team, but hospital officials refused to release the patient.
Doctors said De Saulles was “resting comfortably” and would recover within the week, “improving as rapidly as could be expected.” But by Monday night De Saulles was back in Connecticut, on campus, where headlines proclaimed “YALE HERO” was “Out of Danger”:
New Haven, Conn., Nov. 25.—(Special)—Johnny De Saulles, Yale’s quarterback, returned to his college home in the cloister tonight with his roommate, Arthur Barnwell, the Yale [baseball] center fielder, who took him from the Massachusetts General Hospital today and brought him here.
The non-bylined report quoted Yale football officials, but no doctor, in announcing De Saulles had recovered from brain trauma sustained in a body shot on the field:
De Saulles is still weak, but danger of permanent injury from cerebral concussion is over. Trainer Murphy says that it was a solar plexus blow received when De Saulles tackled Marshall which threw him into convulsions on the side lines after the game. Head Coach Stillman shares that opinion. De Saulles has been ordered to keep quiet for a few days.
No direct quote was attributed to Walter Camp, Yale coaching director, the football powerbroker and rules leader who presumably presided over the matter of De Saulles. Instead the writer noted Camp felt “exhausted by the strain of the last few weeks” and would depart on a vacation.
Social Darwinism was a dynamic here, spawning worry of an emasculated America, a male population ill-prepared to fight wars. Hysteric notions of manhood were popularized, along with symbols of ruggedness like Teddy Roosevelt and football. The macho-acting, tough-talking “T.R.” worshiped the gridiron, extolling it in news quotes and speeches. Roosevelt pushed his sons into the blood sport, although he never played as a student at Harvard.
“Manly” mindset often prevailed in cases of football injury, particularly TBI, the invisible wound. Concussive incidents could be ignored by everyone, including the injured players, although many could not help themselves.
During a college game in the Midwest, 1904, a badly concussed player resisted anyone’s assistance on the field, and eventually got his wish to manage himself, even if delirious. Illinois Wesleyan end Robert Ramage had absorbed a blow rendering him “dazed,” observed The Decatur Daily Review:
He was wholly out of his head at the field, and it took three men… to hold him and to keep him from running back into the game. … J.W. Race offered his carriage, and in it Ramage was taken to the hospital.
At the hotel Dr. E.J. Brown attended to the injured man. [The doctor] said that is was plain there had been concussion of the brain that had caused the dazed condition, but that as far as he was able to see there was no fracture of the skull, nor any cut on the scalp. There was a bad bruise on the leg.
Dr. Brown ordered the man to go to bed, and to stay at the hotel until the early morning train, instead of going home with the team at 6:15 [in the evening].
At about 6 o’clock [Ramage] presented himself at the hotel office and announced he was going to the station and home with the boys. No objection was made, and he went. He was rather weak, but was able to get to the depot, where he joined the team and was taken home.
Two days later, the local newspaper pronounced Ramage “recovered” without attributing medical authority for the information.
In the same week, Delaware, conflicting viewpoints surrounded the game injury of Vernon Gill, football captain for Maryland Agriculture College. Doctors at a Wilmington hospital said Gill suffered a concussion, but the senior administrator of his college disagreed. The Washington Times reported:
It was learned today… from Major Sylvester, president of the M.A.C., that the injured player is not suffering from concussion of the brain, and is in no serious danger. He was badly shaken up, but is expected back with the rest of his teammates in a few days.
But neural specialists conflicted with the college president on brain injury, which they regarded as serious for any symptoms. Undoubtedly, TBI in acute phase could alter the senses, mental state, personality and behavior.
Brain-injured football players could struggle with schoolwork, such as Yale end William J. MacMahon, who was advised by his personal physician to quit the sport and leave law studies for the semester in October of 1904. Yale coaches called the injury report a “rumor” and denied knowledge, but MacMahon did not return to football. [Later, both MacMahon and John De Saulles made national headlines as former Yale stars in stormy marriages and court proceedings. De Saulles was shot dead by his ex-wife in 1917, amid acrimony over child custody and adultery. MacMahon was criminally indicted for assaulting his second wife in 1928, beating her into critical condition with a flashlight during a car trip home from the Yale-Harvard game; the charge was dropped.]
Doctors knew concussion could spur violence in acute phase, at least, and football was blamed in part for a player’s suicide, according to this national report:
Janesville, Wis., Oct. 9—Leon Ayers, one of the brightest and most popular students in high school, committed suicide at his room in the Y.M.C.A. building last night with chloroform. It is thought that he was mentally unbalanced, the result of a fall from scaffolding last summer and subsequent injuries in a football game a week ago.
The Ayers case was included among football deaths for 1901, in lists compiled by newsmen.
Many specialists believed TBI could leave permanent damage, and concern for re-injury after a diagnosed concussion led to side-lining of football players around turn of the century. Princeton tackle Albert T. Baker had to leave the team in 1903 because of severe trauma. His hometown newspaper in Pennsylvania reported:
Baker was kicked on the head and was in the hospital with concussion of the brain for several weeks. Surgeons examined the wound and decided that it would be dangerous to allow him to play again this season, as a kick or blow on the same spot of the first injury would probably result fatally. Since that time he has not been allowed to play and has been coaching the Freshmen eleven of the school. The coaches speak favorably of Baker’s chances for next year and say he would have made the team this year but for his unfortunate injury.
Casualties of TBI were sometimes committed to mental wards, such as this schoolboy football player in 1903:
Columbus, Ohio, Nov. 16—Earl Neff, aged 16, was brought to the state hospital for the insane here Saturday from Kingston, Ohio. He is incurably crazed from injuries received in a game of football. He sustained concussion of the brain. He has a mania for studying electricity, in which subject he was interested before the accident.
JAMA editors likened football risks to warfare, declaring, “To be a cripple or lunatic for life is paying high for athletic emulation,” and courts were recognizing long-term TBI affliction from accidents outside sport. A former Purdue player injured in a wreck of the team train sued the railroad over permanent injuries, including brain damage that impaired his eyesight, hearing, memory, and reasoning while paralyzing him on the ride side. The judge awarded him $10,000 compensation. Elsewhere, a young man died years after a brain injury in football. A report stated:
Chicago, Oct. 11 —Max Henry Fleischer is dead as a result of an injury received in a football game six years ago. Until two months ago Fleischer did not know of [his condition], but as soon as his father learned of it he had an examination made which showed that the young man’s skull was depressed. The skull was trepanned [surgically opened], revealing a diseased condition of the brain.
During the last six years Fleischer had suffered from severe headaches. Several times he was found unconscious. When the accident occurred Fleischer was 15 years old and was anxious to get a place on the regular football team at school. He was kicked on the head and picked up in a dazed condition, but he exacted a promise from his playmates not to talk of the accident for fear his mother would not allow him to play anymore.
While medical science lacked a smoking gun to prove permanent cerebral damage of football collisions, circumstantial evidence abounded. Harvard president Charles Eliot, arch enemy of football, proclaimed the game was a health menace. In February 1905, Eliot stated, “Sprains, concussions of the brain and injuries to bones are apt to leave behind them permanent weaknesses, which in later life become troublesome.”
1900-1902: Football Brutality and Call For ‘Open Game’
When football controversy struck again in the early 1900s, brutality and injuries were issues, but spectators complained chiefly for the plodding “mass” formations that obscured ball-carriers, like blocking “wedges” and scrums. Fans clamored for a completely “open game” of running and forward passing; player protection was a minor concern.
Even university presidents, football’s notorious adversaries, typically advocated an open format to ensure the game’s survival. The ballyhooed rules revision of 1894 had failed to end deadly gang blocking, other than the 10-man “flying wedge,” and subsequent tinkering with code left loopholes for mass offense.
Human wedges or walls still flourished on the field. The ploy known as “guards back” was standard, shifting two offensive linemen into the backfield before center snap for an early charge for trampling defenders. And Glenn “Pop” Warner, coaching “genius” of the Carlisle Indian School, designed the “end-over” formation, touted as “flying interference within the rules” for erasing defense on outside runs.
Public backlash rose during football season 1902 against mass play, coaching tactics, and the rules committee steered by Walter Camp at Yale. Player deaths caused tension, and a Presbyterian synod in Tennessee condemned football; the church had begun by denouncing bullfighting but that was dropped as “not being on par with football.”
The gridiron maw proved mortal for a player of a Baptist college in its opening game: “Harry Jordan of Sioux Falls, S.D., became mixed up in a mass play and was so severely injured that he died soon after,” The St. Louis Republic reported.
Defensive linemen also formed walls, evidenced in the ruthless smashing of a young man who tried to make a town team in Pennsylvania. “KILLED AT FOOTBALL,” headlines announced, continuing, “Players Piled on One of Their Number, Crushing Out His Life.” The national report followed:
Sharon, Pa., Oct. 21—During a practice game of football at Transfer yesterday, William Martin, 21 years old, sustained injuries that resulted in his death a few hours later. Martin was playing center on a scrub team, and when the ball was [snapped to quarterback] he was carried backward for some distance, and then hurled to the ground with great violence. The opposing players piled on him… Physicians were summoned. They stated that Martin had sustained internal injuries and was suffering from concussion of the brain. He did not regain consciousness.
Martin’s violent brain injury was nevertheless ruled “an accident” by local officials, and he was among at least 10 football deaths in 1902. The grid season’s survivor casualties also included “a number of concussions,” reportedly. In Missouri, a lineman for Central College “bore the brunt of many [mass] attacks and played after he should have been taken out,” a newspaper declared. “He was helped off the field in a dazed condition and afterward examined by a physician, who found him suffering from concussion of the brain.”
Criticism overtook game officials once again. “RULES MUST CHANGE,” declared the headline over a news report from the East:
Syracuse, N.Y., Nov. 24—Chancellor James R. Day of Syracuse University caused a sensation in the chapel by stating that unless the football rules are radically changed so as to abolish mass plays, he would go before the board of trustees and ask them to disband the team at Syracuse. He said:
“I have always supported football, but the time has come when I find it difficult to defend the game. When, before the season is two-thirds over, half the members of a team have been in the hospital and some of them compelled to leave the game permanently, when men have been killed throughout the country and scores upon scores have been maimed, there must be something wrong with the game.”
The Journal of the American Medical Association [JAMA], premier medical publication, ripped football rulemakers for play “made absolutely murderous at times. Among the serious casualties of the game this year we have fractured skulls, injured spines, brain injuries resulting in insanity, as well as broken legs, ribs, collar-bones, etc.” Atlantic Monthly noted football presented mortal risks “justified only in professions like fire-protection, life-saving, sea-faring and railroading.”
New York Independent editors chided universities for allowing football “associations” of young men to rule campuses and besmirch educational mission with their blood sport:
Why should the policy of universities in so important a matter be left to the dictation of the undergraduates [players] and overenthusiastic athletic graduates [coaches]? … There needs to be careful discrimination made by competent authorities between what is essential and what is both non-essential and injurious in the game.
Competent or not, the same insider committee of football “experts”—coaches, a referee, game-friendly professors—were tasked with overhauling the rules yet another time. But outside intervention was possible, sources told The New York Sun, which reported:
Well-informed persons say that the Intercollegiate Football Rules Committee will have to abolish mass plays from the gridiron before the season of 1903 begins. If the committee does not do so on its own initiative, the presidents and faculty athletic authorities of many of the big universities will, it is said, will take up the matter and deal with it… Several of the college presidents have been severely outspoken in their disfavor of existing conditions. … President [Woodrow] Wilson of Princeton has… said that the game would have to be altered if it is to continue to have a place on Princeton’s calendar of sports.
The St. Louis Republic declared the rules committee must redesign football: “For many seasons the cry of the general public has been for a game where there was more open work, that is, more passing, kicking, and playing in the broken field.”
Vanguards of the status quo held their ground. They defended football as-is and particularly the rules encouraging mass formations, such as a first down for advancing five yards and the ban on forward passing and quarterback runs. This group known as the football “conservatives”—with Walter Camp at top—blamed existing open play for terrible injuries, by creating fiercer collisions of faster-moving athletes.
Players faced less risk when “bunched in scrimmages,” remarked Julian Curtiss, a designer of football helmets and managing partner for A.G. Spalding athletic equipment in New York City. “Those who are clamoring for more open play should bear in mind that there are more injuries.” Curtiss, an equipment magnate and associate of Camp, was a former Yale football player who promoted his alma mater’s games in New York with Harvard and Princeton, events generating enormous crowds and lucrative profit for grid associations at each university. Curtiss told a New York writer that 30,000 paying customers for a game “strikes me as pretty good evidence that the present style of [mass] play is what the spectators like to see.”
Spalding sponsored the annual football rulebook written by Camp, old friend of Curtiss in New Haven, among commercial ventures the company enjoyed with the sport icon and his Yale athletic association. Camp claimed his rules committee had already opened-up football, well enough. Camp echoed Curtiss in contending open play was risky and that popular opinion favored mass play, upon which peerless Yale football was founded. In Camp’s statement disseminated by newspapers, introducing him as “the eminent authority” of football, he wrote:
Just at this time is transpiring one of the periodically occurring movements against the game as it stands. Football, wherever played, has always been a subject for critics. … Changes are not advocated now solely for the sake of avoiding injury, but rather in order to make the game more interesting to spectators. … There is no doubt that the men who are most interested in the sport of football are especially desirous of seeing it kept up to its present interest, both to player and spectator; that as far as possible the liability of injury be eliminated; and, finally, that the ethos of the game be kept as high as possible.
1903: Football Officials Tout New Rules, Sell New Helmets
Walter Camp discussed football risk, manhood, and ethics for an address of the Yale Club in Chicago during February 1903, as the game drew blame for gambling among college students. “There is no increase in the so-called evils of football,” Camp reassured alumni and boosters. Gambling on campus, he argued, was modeled after beloved poker play and more games of chance, like lotteries to fund construction of churches and university buildings.
“Then they want the dangers eliminated from football,” Camp said, indicating rulemakers felt besieged by complaints while lacking fresh ideas for football safety. “It would be agreeable to schoolmasters and parents, probably, if we could devise sports which would not contain any elements of danger, but it cannot be done.”
Technology had already failed to reduce football’s most devastating risk, brain trauma, through unsuccessful “headgear” models produced by game officials. For years trainers and coaches had designed helmets they claimed would prevent “concussion of the brain” ranging from headaches to hemorrhaging, along with skull fracture.
Trainers and coaches controlled the boom business of football equipment and outfitting, in concert with partners like Curtiss at Spalding. While they aimed to protect players, the head armor was counterproductive, often spurring vicious colliding. A player felt safe in a helmet but also emboldened to hit head-on or absorb blows above the neck, particularly for building speed and forward leverage in open-field ramming.
During the 1890s the development of effective anti-TBI material proved elusive. Early headgear or “harness” included rubber and cowhide forms for injured players at Princeton and Kansas, but no protection resulted. Then hard leather helmets proliferated, firm as a boot sole, only to cause trouble.
In 1900 the influential Yale coaches decried “heavy leather helmets which are now worn by nearly all the players, especially the end rushers,” a reporter wrote from New Haven. “The ends dive headlong at the backs… Cook, Sharp and Hale, the three most powerful backs at Yale, are out of the game at present, largely because of injuries received in this way.”
It was likely Camp who channeled the following message for football at-large, through the news writer: “There is no rule forbidding… the [sole] leather helmets, but Yale men would favor a new football rule making it illegal to wear that article of football armor.” Left unsaid was Camp’s buddy at Spalding equipment, Yale alumnus Julian Curtiss, whose pet project was a “pneumatic” football helmet.
Another newspaper story head-lined Yale in its “crusade” against leather headgear, with support from the University of Pennsylvania. The report also dropped the unattributed, unproven assertion that “a good pneumatic headpiece distributes the force of a blow over the entire head instead of centering it on one spot.”
“Princeton coaches, on the other hand, favor all kinds of helmets,” the report continued. “They argue that headpieces are necessary because the injuries to the head are generally of a far more lasting and serious nature than those received in other parts of the body.”
Trainers announced new leather designs at the universities of Illinois and Michigan, and more joined the engineering race for a protective football helmet—and riches. “The gear that has caused the most experiment and thought is that for the head,” a reporter declared from the Midwest in 1901. But no one produced the dream helmet and brain trauma continued unabated in field collisions.
Officials debated potential policy on headgear and other equipment throughout the football season of 1902. Mass play preoccupied critics, and at that point the football rulemakers, or Camp primarily, determined time was right for blaming injuries on heavy leather helmets. So the headgear problem made news again: Upcoming rules meetings would involve “a determined crusade against the armor-bearing tendencies of the game,” a report announced on Jan. 4, 1903, citing anonymous inside information. “Perhaps the worst phase of the armor question is the subject of hard leather.” A rigid helmet encouraged a player to “literally ram his opponent,” the text stated, continuing:
When these are tied on there is a dome-shaped skull covering as hard as steel… The climax came during last season, when a prominent supporter of the game came across a New England schoolboy who had a [sole leather] helmet shaped to a point; a dull one, but a point, nevertheless. Then the gravity of the situation came home to the observer, who is a member of the Rules Committee, and it is safe to predict that there will be some strenuous reform urged at the next meeting.
The committee finalized rule revisions by summertime. Camp led officials in announcing “less dangerous” and exciting football for the 1903 season. Indeed, fans could compare mass play and open play since the game field had been divided into zones for both. The mass-play format stood intact from each 25-yard mark to goal line, allowing momentum formations and push-pull assistance for a ball-carrier. In the open zone, 50 yards in midfield set between the 25-yard marks, the quarterback could carry the ball if he crossed scrimmage beyond five yards either side of the snap spot. Likewise in the open zone, seven men were required on the line for each snap. The committee did not address forward passing.
Additionally, the rule-makers acted on headgear and body padding, banning sole leather. Soft leather remained sanctioned by rules, and Spalding’s Julian Curtiss stood poised to fill the helmet vacuum with his air-cushioned model featuring a pneumatic crown.
Most opportune for Spalding in the football preseason—and entirely set up—the company was able to release its sponsored press run of college rulebooks in step with advertising and news planting that touted its new helmet. The business synergy of timing new field code with equipment production was no coincidence, but merely arranged between Camp and Curtiss, according to historical news and Camp’s personal papers.
“When necessary, Curtiss had no qualms about asking Camp’s predictions on rule changes that might affect Spalding equipment such as the ‘head harness,’ ” Stephen Hardy wrote for his essay Entrepreneurs, Structures, and the Sportgeist.
“Spalding executive Julian Curtiss found his friendship with Camp beneficial when it came to selling his expanding equipment lines,” author Julie Des Jardins wrote in her book Walter Camp: Football and The Modern Man, continuing:
When [Curtiss] developed a new shin guard, for instance, he showed it to his friend to make sure it conformed to Rule Three, Section Three of the football code, which forbade the wearing of “projecting, metallic, or hard substances.” Spalding held off on production of [pneumatic] head harnesses in 1902 until Camp could influence legislation on protective headgear. The sporting goods company marketed to casual players and high school leagues too, since many of them conformed to IFA guidelines and looked to the college game for guidance. In return, Camp was able to outfit Yale athletes at a discounted rate, and Curtiss offered him first dibs on the newest golf equipment, his-and-her bicycles, and skates and sleds for the kids.
Another football figure at Yale was not beholden to Curtiss, however, especially in open competition for developing the anti-TBI helmet, holy grail of football equipment. Mike Murphy, Yale’s famed athletic trainer and coach—who was prone to switch jobs for better opportunity, including multiple stints with Camp at New Haven—focused his skill for equipment design entirely on football headgear in August 1903. And Murphy wouldn’t endorse Yale’s use of the new Spalding piece.
“Every one of us interested in football is trying to solve the problem…,” Murphy told a reporter, “and get something pliable and yet which will offer sufficient protection to the men. There ought to be, under the circumstances, a good assortment of headgear from which to select just the one we need.” Murphy saw promise in a few materials. “Felt is a good protector and is not too hard to use. Rubber heads may be tried.”
But Spalding’s promotional blitz was rolling, drowning voices like Murphy, and “pneumatic” headgear was sudden buzzword of the game. Teams were already receiving Spalding deliveries, from Cornell University in New York to Drury College in Missouri. Rules czar Camp, for his part, regularly mentioned the Spalding design, and the popular press chimed in unquestioningly. “The most important device is for keeping the brains of the football player from spilling over the field of battle at inopportune times,” a columnist opined, praising Spalding’s contraption. “This wonderfully constructed machine is pneumatic.”
Newspaper editors reprinted Spalding releases verbatim. A nationally publicized item stated:
The rules committee… passed a rule that if head protectors were worn they should no longer be made of sole leather, papier mache or other hard and unyielding material, and all other devices for protectors must be so arranged and padded as, in the opinion of the umpire, to be without danger to other players.
To conform to this rule Spalding’s pneumatic head harness has been designed and it is certainly one of the greatest improvements in the players’ equipment… a pneumatic crown sufficient to afford absolute protection. Ventilation is provided through heavy felt. Many trainers and players from leading colleges have examined this head harness and give it their unqualified approval.
Following football reform and conflicts of interest, the games began in late September, 1903, and field action drew scrutiny for the promises of rulemakers and associates. They garnered praise for enhancing the entertainment factor. An uptick in the open style was observable, according to reviews, and media celebrated scoring when major universities unloaded on smaller schools.
After Michigan won 79-0 over Beloit, the little college lost worse next week at Wisconsin, 87-0, and the scores lit up headlines for newspapers and magazines. “BELOIT IS SNOWED UNDER” and “Crowd Goes Wild,” heralded a Chicago Tribune report from the Badger State, continuing:
Madison, Wis., Oct. 17—(Special)—Wisconsin went Michigan one touchdown better here today, defeating Beloit by a score of 87 to 0. The speed and team work shown by Wisconsin came as a big surprise to the most enthusiastic admirers, and hopes for a championship team are high in Madison tonight.
Bain made the first touchdown off tackle after one-and-a-half minutes’ play. Line bucks for short, steady gains carried the ball over the second score, and then end runs and line smashes were alternated in rapid succession until the [visiting] Congregationalists were literally swept off their feet. …
The crowd of 1,200 rooters early in the second half began calling for a score of 80, [and] when that point was reached their enthusiasm was without bounds.
Famed sports columnist Ralph D. Paine detected both positives and negatives in retreaded football, writing for The Illustrated Sporting News:
The “new football rules”… are deserving of commendation in certain ways, after actual test on a hundred fields in the first month of the season. It has been already demonstrated, however, that they are not revolutionary, that they are hardly to be called sensational, and that football is the “same old game.” …
As for the spectator, it is true that the play is more easily followed than formerly. In midfield, from the average point of vantage, it is possible to see who takes the ball from the quarterback, whither the run is directed, and to follow the runner until he is tackled. This is a distinct gain over the old-style scrimmage [conducted from 25-yard lines to goal lines] where, except when the ball is kicked or fumbled, the onlooker cannot tell whether there is a football, no ball, or an old high hat, as the bone of furious contention.
As for less violence, injury reduction, Paine saw no evidence. “Reports of rough play are as frequent as they were last year,” he surmised.
New helmet policy and complementary product had no apparent effect. The soft pneumatic headgear accomplished sales but nothing else beyond a curious appearance, strapped like a “beehive” atop a player. And while a written rule banned heavy leather from college football, real-time enforcement was problematic, especially for inspecting the array of helmets, homemade and manufactured, brought onto game fields. Responsibility remained with umpires for weeding out illicit equipment, any type, and allegations persisted of incompetence for the task.
Some coaches swore off all headgear as dangerous, trying to expunge it from their programs, including A.A. Stagg at the University of Chicago. But “concussion” casualties remained common of football news from all levels, sandlot, school, club and college. And multiple cases beset Stagg’s team, compelling him to reissue headgear for brain-injured players. The Chicago Daily News reported:
Kirby, the short, stocky little halfback, is forced to adopt the helmet. He had his head severely bruised in one of the early scrimmages and later received a jolt in one of the practice games which put him out of the contest. … It may be that [Stagg’s] hasty discarding of almost all protective armor will prove premature, and that the Maroons will be forced to take up again the shin guards, nose guards and helmets, which they have thrown away.
So-called head protection, rigid or otherwise, did not shield a school team in Kansas. During a game at Leavenworth, the players of Olathe High were “trampled on, kicked, and rubbed in the dirt,” according to The Leavenworth Times, which detailed TBI incidents on the field and followup treatment:
No one used to the clean kind of foot ball being put up by the local team would have anticipated the serious accidents which befell three of the Olathe players in yesterday’s game. Captain Harland Lanter, left guard, and Fred Hill, left half-back, were carried from the field unconscious and George Russell, right half, was early disabled by a sprained ankle. Of the three accidents Lanter’s was the most serious.
After twenty minutes’ play in the first half Olathe, realizing the futility of her efforts to crush the heavy Leavenworth line, fell back on the third down and punted. As the team swept down the field those on the side lines saw Lanter, standing in his tracks, grasp convulsively at his headgear and then fall. When persons from the side lines ran to him he was losing consciousness and lapsed into a… state in which he walked about the field and even played out the half before his men were brought to a realization of the fact that his injuries were of a dangerous nature.
He was taken from the field at the end of the half. Though still able to walk he knew nothing of his surroundings. Taken to the grand stand and wrapped in blankets he soon lost consciousness entirely. Only after he had been taken to the Imperial hotel in an ambulance did he regain reason. He was unconscious for two hours. …
Lanter was immediately taken care of by Drs. Suwalski, Shoyer and Lane, who were spectators at the game. A careful examination at the hotel last evening showed that Lanter had received a severe shock near the base of the brain on the left side. He told that he had been injured in the same spot at Fort Scott a year ago and he was not surprised at a recurrence. Hill’s injury resulted from falling and striking his forehead violently.
In both cases slight concussions of the brain resulted. Hill was able to leave town on the 6:30 o’clock [train] last evening but Lanter is still in this city in charge of his coach. It was thought advisable for him to rest after the shock before he undertook a journey.
Football death numbers compiled from news accounts, however faulty, suggested no decrease on the playing fields in 1903. The reports, with differing fatality totals, began appearing at season’s end around Thanksgiving. A Philadelphia news group announced at least 17 deaths from football, noting the actual number, impossible to determine, “probably would far exceed this number.” The American Medical Association corroborated: “During the football season just passed, 35 deaths occurred and over 500 severe accidents happened to players of football,” a report stated. “How many of those suffering from severe accidents died afterward cannot be ascertained, but, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association, the number cannot be less than 50.”
The Atlanta Constitution commented as though speaking of warfare: “The old question as to whether football is worth the while is being seriously discussed all over the country again just as another football season has come to an end, and people are beginning to figure up the losses of the season in killed and wounded.”
1876-1900: Roosevelt Embraces ‘Strenuous Life,’ Football
Almost anything seemed possible in America at beginning of the 20th century, including ideas for “safe and sane football.” And when football “brutality” was condemned by the people’s president, Theodore Roosevelt, successful game reform appeared imminent.
Many Americans felt personal connection to the president, simply calling him “T.R” or “Teddy.” Writers regaled the public with heartwarming stories on this heroic character of The Strenuous Life, the theme he hammered in speeches. And Roosevelt figuratively wrapped himself in football, its powerful meanings, as another manhood badge he wore along with those of cowboy, mighty hunter, war hero, explorer, boxer, wrestler, and trust buster.
“Theodore Roosevelt… promoted the strenuous life in myriad ways but granted football a conspicuously important role,” observed cultural analyst Michael Oriard in 1993, an English professor and former NFL player. “Roosevelt tied football to the development of character but also to qualities of bodily hardihood and courage in the face of physical danger that were necessary for both ‘the individual and the race.’ ”
But Roosevelt was never a football player himself, like the celebrity athletes he fawned over, recruited to surround him. He just seemed to have been a football player. This pugnacious figure was seen and heard around the sport from outset of his political career. Roosevelt positioned himself as gallant defender of football, against unjust attack, a political role he assumed before the presidency.
Roosevelt first encountered football spectacle as a Harvard freshman in 1876. He was 18, a hearty fitness buff, but weighed only 135 pounds and wore eyeglasses. Roosevelt later stated that poor eyesight prevented his playing the game. Young Teddy became a football fan instead, sought friends in players, and secured a crimson Harvard game jersey he donned for campus workouts.
When the Harvard “eleven” lost 1-0 to Yale, on a Hail Mary dropkick at the victor’s home field, student Roosevelt rued defeat and alleged dirty tricks. “I am sorry to say we were beaten, principally because our opponents played very foul,” Teddy wrote to his mother in Manhattan.
In the 1890s college football faced its concerted abolition threat, and Roosevelt rushed to the fore, vociferously supporting the game and officials in his conversations, letters, and speeches. Roosevelt’s opinion was delivered with gusto and carried weight, coming from this rising public servant, native of New York City. He derided football critics as wimps and resented their leader—in charge at Roosevelt’s alma mater, no less—Harvard president Charles W. Eliot.
“In Roosevelt’s opinion, the foes of football were wrongheaded idealists who simply refused to accept the risks that are attached to virtually any human endeavor,” wrote John J. Miller, modern author of The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football:
They threatened to feminize an entire generation. At stake was nothing less than the future of the United States: On the threshold of a new century, would the country seize its historic destiny and grow into a world power or would it stop short of this accomplishment because it had turned out, in Roosevelt’s words, “mollycoddles instead of vigorous men”?
Roosevelt addressed the football team at Cambridge in 1896, “a most enthusiastic audience of Harvard men,” reported The Crimson. Roosevelt told the players: “It is not the critic that we want… it is the hard worker, the man who has the cause at heart, who has the fighting spirit and who feels his veins thrill when Harvard scores a goal. That is the man we need. Every individual fellow owes a debt of gratitude to a man who has the qualities of mind and body to make the team and who plays for Harvard.”
Roosevelt relished speaking to Harvard players and stayed mindful of football when appointed as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, by President William McKinley in 1897. Roosevelt helped restore football games between Navy and West Point, and tabbed college players for his “Rough Riders” volunteer regiment—hyped to extreme by the press—in America’s short military conflict with Spain at Cuba in 1898. Miller wrote:
On July 1, outside the city of Santiago, Roosevelt led his dismounted men in the Battle of San Jan Hill. His famous charge up Kettle Hill drove Spanish soldiers from the summit. Roosevelt called it his “crowded hour.” It secured his place as a national hero. Although Roosevelt might have remained safely to the rear of his charging soldiers, he faced open fire and led them to the top of the hill.
Roosevelt returned home a celebrity, in time to run for New York governor and win convincingly. Harvard football enjoyed a banner year, too, defeating Yale for the national championship and a perfect 11-0 record. The Harvard alumni threw a lavish banquet in Boston before Christmas, hosting a crowd of 500 at the American House hotel, to fete the football champions and the university’s latest figure of fame, Roosevelt. When T.R. was introduced, the room erupted. “It was five minutes before Colonel Roosevelt could speak,” a report noted, continuing:
When the tumult had partly subsided, he said: “Mr. Toastmaster and Fellow Harvard Men. This has been a good year for Harvard. The team won and I won myself, and at the present moment I am somewhat in doubt as to which was the greater achievement.”
“I realize that the team understands and appreciates the keen personal interest taken in it by Harvard’s old graduates and undergraduates. But what I am proudest of is the fact that the Harvard team played liked gentlemen and won like gentlemen. If I ever go to war again, let me have such men as they who comprised the Harvard team of this year behind me.”
Roosevelt would not return to war; he was on fast track to the White House, named as McKinley’s vice-presidential running mate for 1900. McKinley won reelection but was shot by an assassin and died, and Roosevelt was sworn in as the 25th American president in September 1901, history’s youngest at age 42.
1901-1904: Football Fan and Father in The White House
President Theodore Roosevelt was a social reformer, the buster of business monopolies, the “Big Stick” protector of workers and consumers. In historic fights from the White House, Roosevelt took on financier J.P. Morgan, the railroads, meatpacking and coal mining. And he religiously followed football and attended games, unlike presidents before him.
American football had its first fan president, a most powerful ally, which a congressman discovered awkwardly soon after Roosevelt took office. Rep. Frank Wachter of Maryland, a Republican like the president, attacked “government football” at West Point and the Naval Academy in Annapolis. Citing dangers, Wachter argued “that men who are to be officers in the Army and Navy should not subject themselves to possible injury in such rough and tumble playing as the gridiron.”
Wachter urged Congress to end football games between West Point and Navy—but Teddy Roosevelt’s shadow loomed, suddenly. “Congressman Wachter… was surprised that the President should attend the recent Army and Navy game,” commented The Richmond Dispatch, wryly adding: “[Wachter] proposes a joint resolution prohibiting… the annual contest between the West Point and Annapolis elevens, but doesn’t he, in planning this action, himself undertake a bold and interesting tackle?”
The congressman denied criticizing the president over the Army-Navy game. “He declares that he has been misunderstood in this respect, and that in commenting upon the gridiron has never stated that Mr. Roosevelt acted with impropriety in witnessing the exhibition,” reported The Washington Times.
Rep. Wachter caved and took his flogging, ceasing talk of congressional action on football as pressmen mocked him and a group of “anxious mothers.” The women had pledged allegiance to the young politician “if he would get a law through Congress not only prohibiting the Army and Navy game, but also putting a stop to football everywhere in the country,” reported The Philadelphia Press, which continued:
And it can be taken for granted that so long as there is a man in the White House who is willing to travel 130 miles to see a game, sit two hours in a November atmosphere while the game lasts and then travel 130 miles back to Washington again—so long as that condition lasts, there will be no presidential signature put to an anti-football bill. Congressman Wachter doubtless informed himself as to that fact and then withdrew to the sideline and let the game to go on as before.
But terrible casualties would continue with the game, predictably, occurring foremost among players at the Naval Academy in Wachter’s district—and throughout Roosevelt’s presidency. Navy doctors of the decade, in fact, would advance surgical practice through their procedures on injured football players, attempting to treat catastrophic trauma cases of the brain and spine. [The Annapolis academy has ultimately led American football in player fatalities reported publicly since 1900, with eight deaths that include two ensigns from “sandlot” games on campus, from among historical newsprint available to this reviewer through electronic search.]
Meanwhile, Roosevelt had to deal directly with a fretting football mother: His wife, Edith Roosevelt, the First Lady who avoided public comment on any matter. As newsmen ridiculed Rep. Wachter and the anti-football mothers at Christmas 1901, Edith was privately disturbed over game injuries of her eldest son, Theodore, Jr., at a boarding school in Massachusetts. “Ted” had suffered a fractured collarbone and broken front tooth. Therefore President Roosevelt contacted the school headmaster and close friend Endicott Peabody, founder of Groton preparatory academy in Massachusetts, to sheepishly question his son’s football situation. Roosevelt wrote:
White House, Jan. 4, 1902
Pray do not think me grown timid in my old age until you read this note through. Ted would have a fit if he knew I were writing it, as I found that by having written you about his collar-bone he was rendered very uncomfortable. In addition to Ted’s collar-bone, the dentist tells me that he has killed one front tooth in foot ball, and that tooth will get black. Now I don’t care a rap for an accident in itself, but Ted is only fourteen and I am afraid if he goes on like this he will get battered out before he can play in college.
Roosevelt was apparently aware of a growing sentiment within football, that players merely had shelf life for the gladiatorial sport, regardless of individual will and fitness. Specifically, physical maturity was required to even step on a football field. Thus many football personnel believed the game wrong for typical schoolboys, a philosophy voiced regularly by college coaches, trainers and players.
Roosevelt in private letters seemed conflicted about prep football for his sons Ted and Kermit—Mrs. Roosevelt struggled with it, most assuredly. The president, drawing on opinion from buddy college players, implied to Peabody that his son should not face “heavy boys” in football:
Last night a Groton graduate, one of the Harvard substitutes, told me of his own accord that he thought it had been a mistake for Ted to play against heavy boys so much this year. I do not know whether he knows anything about it or not, but De Saulles, the Yale quarterback, who was there, added that he thought it was a pity a young boy should get so battered up, if it came from playing larger ones, as it might interfere with other playing later. Now all this may be merely a rumor, and Ted may not have been playing against heavier boys, but I thought I would write you about it anyway.
The president talked differently in public, however, heartily endorsing football for boys including his own. In public Roosevelt scoffed at casualty reports about football, calling the numbers overblown, declaring there were no victims among the disabled and dead. Indeed, he regularly advocated athletic injury for galvanizing a “muscular Christian,” within the movement of so-called vigorous men who played fair and square in physical conquest. “It seems to me that a good rule for life is one borrowed from the football field…,” Roosevelt would chime in familiar tone, leading an expectant audience to his famed kicker: “Don’t flinch, don’t foul, hit the line hard!” T.R. used the pet slogan in autographs for fans and apparently indulged news stories falsely claiming he had played football for Harvard while courageously defying injury; none of the tales was corrected.
Theodore did relay Edith’s darkest fear for their football sons—spinal paralysis leading to death—in his public and private communication. But he resorted to gallows humor, poor joking peculiar to this game of bad outcomes, football. “Now do not break your neck unless you esteem it really necessary,” he wrote to Ted at Groton. “About arms and legs I am no less particular, although on the whole I prefer that even they should be kept reasonably whole.”
Ted was a tough boy but both the president and schoolmaster worried of his attempt to make the varsity football team in 1903. “Unfortunately he is light,” Peabody informed Roosevelt, “and when he tackles these big chaps, and goes down under them, I expect to find him squashed!” Peabody told coaches he had to write the president before allowing Ted to play on varsity, while the boy protested and likewise wrote his father.
Upon letters reaching the White House, Theodore and Edith discussed the problem before he penned a long reply to Ted, revealing their concern.
White House, Oct. 4, 1903
In spite of the “Hurry! Hurry!” on the outside of your envelope, I did not like to act until I had consulted Mother and thought the matter over; and to be frank with you, old fellow, I am by no means sure that I am doing [the] right [thing] now. If it were not that I feel you will be so bitterly disappointed, I would strongly advocate your acquiescing in the decision to leave you off the [varsity] second squad this year. I am proud of your pluck, and I greatly admire football—though it was not a game I was ever able to play myself, my qualities resembling Kermit’s rather than yours. But the very things that make it a good game make it a rough game, and there is always the chance of your being laid up. Now, I should not in the least object to your being laid up for a season if you were striving for something worth while, to get on the Groton school team, for instance, or on your class team when you entered Harvard—for of course I don’t think you will have the weight to entitle you to try for the [college varsity as a freshman]. But I am no means sure that it is worth your while to run the risk of being laid up for the sake of playing in the second squad when you are a fourth former [prep junior], instead of when you are a fifth former [senior]. I do not know that the risk is balanced by the reward. However, I have told the Rector [Peabody] that as you feel so strongly about it, I think that the chance of your damaging yourself in body is outweighed by the possibility of bitterness in spirit if you could not play. …in this case I am uncertain, and I shall give you the benefit of the doubt.
I am delighted to have you play football. I believe in rough, manly sports. But I do not believe in them if they degenerate into the sole end of any one’s existence. I don’t want you to sacrifice standing well in your studies to any over-athleticism… Athletic proficiency is a mighty good servant, and like so many other good servants, a mighty bad master. … I am glad you should play football; I am glad that you should box; I am glad that you should ride and shoot and walk and row as well as you do. I should be very sorry if you did not do these things. But don’t even get into the frame of mind which regards these things as constituting the end to which all your energies must be devoted, or even the major portion of your energies.
Ted grasped his parents’ wish and agreed to play on Groton’s “third eleven” as a junior. Roosevelt, heartened, immediately wrote his son:
White House, Oct. 11, 1903
I have received letters from the Rector [Peabody], from [football coach] Mr. Woods, and [coach] Mr Billings. They all say that you should play on the third squad. This was my first, and as I am convinced, my real judgment in the case. If you get smashed up now in a serious way it may prevent your playing later. … I think it a little silly to run any imminent risk of a serious smash simply to play on the second squad instead of the third.
But Theodore Junior could not avoid injury in jayvee football either, suffering a fractured nose, with infection risk, to end his season. The president wrote him: “I am interested in your broken nose, and am glad the football season has come to an end as far as you are concerned.” Trying to change subject, Roosevelt wrote of other topics bu still couldn’t avoid gridiron chat for his son. “Did you ever know anything more disgraceful than Harvard’s record in football this year?”
The Harvard team itself heard next from the alumni commander in chief, through his letter of “advice and warning” addressed to the losing coach, John Cranston. “I shall feel more than surprise if they do not go on the field the day of the Yale game with a determination to risk their necks rather than see the Yale team win,” Roosevelt wrote, as a leader of both the free world and Harvard’s athletic booster organization.
Young Kermit at Groton, meanwhile, received the T.R. football message of fatherly concern, restraint. “I am glad you seem to be doing so well in football,” the president wrote the second son, “but I would rather you were on a lower eleven. I wouldn’t much care to have you on one of the upper eleven, where the boys may be too big and heavy for you. So I hope you have been reduced [demoted]!”
1905: Football Tempest Explodes on Presidential Intervention
Theodore Roosevelt reached his zenith of popularity in 1905, beginning his second presidential term after a landslide victory in the general election. As domestic and foreign issues filled his agenda in the Oval Office, tackle football remained a personal affection that he utilized for public image as well.
Football buddies were draped about Roosevelt for his March inauguration in Washington. Rough Riders on horseback flanked his carriage in parade, waving to the crowd, themselves adoringly headlined as a “Motley Collection of Cowboys, Society Leaders, Gun-Fighters and College Football Players.”
Harvard alumni discussed T.R. for someday replacing Charles Eliot as president of the university, particularly for building a football program to beat Yale. “The Rough Rider would certainly be able to organize an impregnable football team,” cheered The Brooklyn Daily Eagle.
Eliot seemingly condemned football, for his rhetoric. Eliot was a visionary of higher education, the builder of Harvard reputation, having transformed a small Cambridge campus into the world-renowned research institution during his leadership of 36 years. But in everyday news Eliot embodied public enemy No. 1 for cherished football.
Eliot’s annual football criticism was always subject to controversy, delivered within a Harvard report and news interviews. In early 1905 Eliot cited permanency of football injuries, including brain damage of concussion, and alleged that “visibly dazed” players on a field were targeted for further abuse. Eliot equated the “hateful” competition of football to warfare, speaking with The New York Times. “No sport is wholesome in which ungenerous or mean acts which easily escape detection contribute to victory, whether such acts can be occasional, accidental, or habitual,” he said.
Eliot’s comments surely stoked ire of Roosevelt, particularly for the academic’s staking higher ground in morality, which the president presumed for himself in any argument. Roosevelt was also seeing news exposés on college football, disclosures that included professional coaches who stabled paid players of no scholarly record on campuses.
Roosevelt soon visited alma mater Harvard, taking a break of his international negotiations for peace between warring Russia and Japan, to deliver a preachy commencement speech. A specially prepared passage defended American football while rebuking types like Eliot.
“I believe in outdoor games, and I do not mind in the least that they are rough games…,” Roosevelt said on June 28 in Cambridge, “or that those who take part in them are occasionally injured. I have no sympathy whatever with the overwrought sentimentality which would keep a young man in cotton wool, and I have a hearty contempt for him if he counts a broken arm or collarbone as of serious consequence when balanced against the chance of showing that he possesses hardihood, physical address, and courage.”
The president did not mention son Ted’s mounting injuries in prep football while rebuking “sensationalism and hysteria” on part of game critics. Roosevelt identified problems as poor sportsmanship and amoral violence on the gridiron. He blamed individual players, not inherently vicious football, declaring “when these injuries are inflicted by [miscreants], either wantonly or of set design, we are confronted by the question, not of damage to one man’s body, but of damage to the other man’s character. Brutality in playing a game should awaken the heartiest and most plainly shown contempt for the player guilty of it.”
As the football debate heated up in public, especially over the president’s attention and opinion, the game remained a private concern for Roosevelt and his wife, because rugged college football loomed for a son. Teddy would try out for Harvard’s freshman team as a lineman weighing 145 pounds, fulfilling his father’s wish and scaring his mother. Once again parents Theodore and Edith blinked at football danger, contemplating a serious if concealed issue for the First Family, apparently.
Roosevelt might have recalled addressing the Harvard Club a decade before, when he ripped into anti-football comments by the absent Eliot, “stirring up the alumni in great style,” a news writer recounted. “I say I am the father of three boys,” T.R. attested at the time. “I will say right here that if I thought any one of them would weigh a possible broken bone against the glory of being chosen to play on Harvard’s football eleven, I would disinherit him!”
Now Roosevelt felt it worthwhile to contact Eliot, of all people, regarding Ted’s football pursuit; perhaps the Harvard president could keep watchful eye like Peabody had for the kid at Groton School. “He is not an athlete of the first or even second caliber,” Roosevelt wrote Eliot, “but I suppose he will try for the freshman eleven this fall, with the hope of becoming a substitute or something of that kind.”
In mid-September, as Ted’s college start drew near, Roosevelt heard from Peabody at Groton, whose letter would spur action to become American myth of T.R.’s “saving” football. Endicott Peabody was more than schoolmaster for Roosevelt’s sons; he was longtime confidante of the president whose old, influential New England family embraced athletics. Their relationship was not one-sided but of mutual respect and power-wielding. And Peabody knew how to motivate Theodore Roosevelt through self-righteous morality.
Peabody implored Roosevelt to do something about “the condition of Foot-ball in this country.” Peabody, advocate and host of the gridiron for schoolboys, wrote that “the teaching of Foot-ball at the Universities is dishonest,” continuing:
There are all kinds of abuses connected with the game which should be remedied, but for most of these we can afford to wait. But this fundamental dishonesty calls for immediate treatment. What is the use of teaching a boy to play fairly at school if he is going to be subjected at college to a pressure which he can hardly be expected to withstand to play a tricky game?
Peabody overlooked injuries too—as a Muscular Christian or muscular moralist like T.R.—worrying instead about demoralization of youths if the college game were not reformed. Optimistically, Peabody spelled out how Roosevelt could accomplish the mission:
A complete revolution could be worked if we could get the coaches of Harvard and Yale and Princeton together, and persuade them to undertake to teach men to play Foot-ball honestly. … If you should talk to these three men, and point out to them the importance to the country that this great game should be freed from the stigma which rests upon it they would, I feel confident, acquiesce, and we should start on a new road which should itself be clean, and would lead to many other reforms.
Peabody added, quite optimistically: “You are the one man, so far as I know, who could accomplish this without much effort.”
Roosevelt replied, naively, “I agree with you absolutely,” and set up the meeting as Peabody prescribed. The president contacted coaches and associates at college football’s “Big Three” universities, and they agreed to meet him at the White House in October.
Football season began for the Roosevelt sons with 18-year-old Ted at Harvard; Kermit, 15, at Groton; and Archie, 11, and Quentin, 7, at home with their parents in Washington. “Have you started your football? I think this is important,” the president wrote Kermit, promoting the game’s roughness and fraternity as beneficial for boys. “Archie is playing football with much zeal. Quentin as yet does not care for any sport in which he is likely to get hurt.” For son Ted at Harvard, Roosevelt offered advice on handling the press: “Do not let these newspaper creatures and kindred idiots drive you one hair’s breadth from the line you have marked out in football or anything else.”
But football posed high challenge for Ted, and he had the ignominious distinction of becoming the first Harvard player injured in 1905, sustaining a facial blow and laceration in practice on Oct. 5. A press mob witnessed the injury and sent stories nationwide. “Theodore, Jr., Laid Out,” announced a headline, then another: “Teddie Failed to Make Team: President’s Son Could Not Meet Beef Requirements at Harvard.” The accompanying report quoted a Harvard coach, unnamed, as saying, “Young Roosevelt is full of grit and is game from start to finish. But he is not heavily built, neither is he speedy enough, both of which are essential qualities for an end.”
Football occupied the president on Oct. 9, if not Teddy’s setback, as Roosevelt expected grid leaders in Washington. The Monday was busy at the White House, with government officials among visitors passing through. “To-day I see the football men…,” T.R. wrote Kermit, “to try to get them to come to a gentlemen’s agreement not to have mucker play.”
Roosevelt conducted the meeting that afternoon with representatives of college football’s “Big Three” programs. Those in attendance were: Harvard coach Bill Reid, a football rulemaker, along with Harvard team physician Dr. Edward H. Nichols; Coach Arthur Hildebrand of Princeton, and athletic director John B. Fine, also a football rulemaker; and Yale football coach John Owsley accompanied by, of course, Walter Camp, the Yale athletic director, football rules king, Spalding equipment endorser, sport author and columnist—the most powerful man in American athletics, unparalled. Secretary of State Elihu Root was also present in this room where football rivalry and bias hung heavy, among the Harvard contingent led by Roosevelt and the parties of Yale and Princeton.
But all were football advocates, united to preserve the game from harm, and so went the meeting. Player health was no main topic, apparently, including brain trauma increasingly cited by medical experts like Dr. Nichols of Harvard, present there at the White House, co-author of a study on football injuries pending publication. No meeting notes were recorded but the press heard details afterward, including T.R. quotes secondhand, and injuries had no priority, if mentioned.
“President Roosevelt avowed his purpose to ‘inaugurate a movement having for its object absolutely clean sport and the eradication of professionalism, money making, and brutality from college games,’ ” stated one news report, and another: “Mr. Roosevelt is especially desirous that the great American college game should not suffer through the unsportsmanlike conduct of players who may willfully injure a member of an opposing team in the heat of the contest.”
The president assigned homework to the football coaches, and they worked together on an evening train from Washington, drafting their official pledge. Headlines ensued: “SWEAR TO IMPROVE GAME” and “Representatives of Big Universities to Follow Roosevelt’s Advice,” with the report:
New Haven, Conn., Oct. 12–Walter Camp, Yale’s general athletic adviser, last night gave out a statement in regard to the conference of the representatives of Yale, Harvard and Princeton, with President Roosevelt Monday, which was held for the purpose of considering reforms in the game of football.
The statement was made public after word had been received from President Roosevelt, and is as follows:
“At a meeting with the president of the United States, it was agreed that we consider an honorable obligation which exists to carry out in letter and in spirit the rules of the game of football relating to roughness, holding and foul play, and the active coaches of our universities being present with us pledged themselves so to regard it and to their utmost to carry out that obligation.
“John B. Owlsley,
“Edward H. Nichols,
“William T. Reid, Jr.”
These men represent Yale, Princeton and Harvard.
Since this legendary football confab of Roosevelt, analysts have searched for substantive action and results, evidence of real reform.
“The conference was a public relations triumph but even a superficial reading of the [prepared] communiqué reveals its shortcomings,” observed modern author Mark F. Bernstein. “No one acknowledged that there were any problems with the game that a stricter application of the existing rules would not fix.”
“The president’s reform interest was in attitudes rather than rules,” wrote Guy Maxton Lewis, for his widely cited doctoral dissertation in physical education at the University of Maryland. Lewis continued:
He [T.R.] liked the physical combat in football, but was an outspoken critic of those in sport, business or government who broke “the spirit but not the letter of the law.” … Roosevelt had no interest in rules reform to reduce the injury risk… .
Challenge confronted world leader Roosevelt in trying to resolve football crisis, which his presidential attention stamped instantly for the national agenda. “Roosevelt later remarked that he found his attempts to resolve the conflicts in football more complicated than settling the Russo-Japanese War. Certainly, those attempts proved less successful,” wrote John Sayle Watterson, author of College Football: History, Spectacle, Controversy, continuing:
Unfortunately for the president, football did not lend itself to mediation as readily as diplomacy or politics. By singling out football, Roosevelt’s intervention had an unintended effect. As if by publicly acknowledging that serious defects existed, Roosevelt gave legitimacy to past and future criticism and spotlighted a debate on football injuries which had been ongoing for a decade but had never received so much attention in so many parts of the country.
News opinion covered the spectrum on T.R.’s football-busting. Many commentators ridiculed Roosevelt, calling his action absurd, unbefitting of presidential office; while others praised it as characteristically progressive. In Pennsylvania, The Altoona Tribune editorialized:
Some presidents of the United States would have regarded the discussion of the foot-ball problem beneath their dignity. President Roosevelt, however, has a universal mind. Nothing is too high for him, nothing too trivial. The upshot of the whole matter is that the president is opposed to [football’s] abolition, but heartily in favor of its transformation into a respectable and comparatively safe game.
But the notion of safe or “sane” football was oxymoronic, opined The Washington Post, and of no demand by the general public. The football debate raged primarily among educators, game officials, doctors, politicians and theologians, and stood magnified only for the T.R. touch.
True reform was unattainable, critics charged, with the same foxes in charge of the hen house. “The president with characteristic vigor has tackled a hard job,” Eliot said from Harvard. “It is hard to bring about a reform through the very [football] men who have long known about the existing evils, and have been largely responsible for their continuance.”
Others declared football violence was beyond any fixing, judging from their eyesight. Congressman Charles B. Landis said “fighting, cock-fighting, and bull-fighting are Sabbath-school games in comparison with modern football.” Landis was an Indiana Republican and brother of federal judge Kenesaw Landis, future commissioner of baseball.
“Sport that necessitates the presence of physicians—well, that is simply another evidence that the brutal instincts in man and woman will crop out,” Rep. Landis commented after watching football in the capital city. “Early in the contest one of the captains was carried off the field insensible, and the game went on. There was not a boy in the game who did not run the risk of receiving an injury that would send him through life a hopeless cripple.”
Mass play reared anew as the foremost culprit of football ills. Moreover, while “open play” or lack thereof had dogged Camp and rulemakers for decades, this touted antidote was maturing as a panacea, assured to eliminate field brutality and spectator boredom, according to latest spin.
Abolition of football was hardly espoused anymore, not as a 20th century solution for problems. An outright ban seemed implausible in industrialized America, for this nationalized sport so planted economically, socially, and ideologically. Eliot loathed football but even he had to acknowledge the contribution to higher education’s image. Football cast a romantic aura of campus life, offsetting scholarly drudgery; the game was “firmly entrenched,” Eliot stated, “in the affections and interests of students.”
Football fans and critics alike pleaded for open play. Rulemakers were implored to drop restrictions on forward passing and outside runs while eliminating mass formations—then they would realize “SAFE AND SANE FOOTBALL,” blared The New York Tribune. The resolution was obvious for practically everyone, even William Howard Taft, the jovial war secretary and Yale man who professed knowing little of the collision sport beyond hearing from friends like T.R. and Camp. “I am not an expert on football,” Taft said, “but in common with others, it seems to me that if the game can be more open and the heavy mass plays abolished, the change will be beneficial.”
“The president has discussed football with me several times lately,” Taft continued. “There is no doubt in my mind that football as played is unsportsmanlike. There is altogether too much rough play and unnecessary injuring of players. The passion for winning the game at any cost has led… to bitter recrimination until underhand methods give way to out-and-out slugging.”
Taft and Camp blamed individual athletes and newsmen, not inherently dangerous football, when they addressed a rousing St. Louis meeting of Associated Western Yale Clubs. A scribe reported that Taft, who would become Roosevelt’s handpicked successor as president, “took occasion to speak a good word for football, supporting Mr. Camp’s contention that it is not the game but the individual player and sensational journalism that is responsible for the present agitation against the game.”
At Harvard, meanwhile, football posed brutality for young Ted Roosevelt, with every player violent on the field by necessity, including him, not merely unsportsmanlike characters. Father Theodore surely understood; the president sympathized in letters from Washington when Ted was initially publicized as failing to make the freshman team. The president wrote:
Were not your first few days—or nights—at Harvard rather too full of incident to lend towards football proficiency? … I expected that you would find it hard to compete with the other candidates for the position of end, as they are mostly heavier than you.
Ted was not finished as a Harvard football player, however; he would stay on the field. Theodore stressed commitment to studies and sport, writing to Ted:
In all these things I can only advise you in a very general way. You are on the ground. You know the men and the general college sentiment. You have gone in with the serious purpose of doing decently and honorably; of standing well in your studies; of showing that in athletics you mean business up to the extent of your capacity, and of getting the respect and liking of your classmates so far as they can be legitimately obtained. As to the exact methods of carrying out these objects, I must trust to you.
Ted secured a backup position on the Harvard freshmen team, but injuries struck again when games began. Playing part-time at end, Ted was led off as a casualty before most contests ended. “Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., was injured in a football scrimmage Saturday,” cracked a Minneapolis columnist on Oct. 30, taking swipe at the president. “Football had just as well take off its headgear and prepare for another swat by the big stick.”
During games Ted suffered a chest injury and absorbed head blows, as most reporters lauded his “pluck.” In a loss for the Harvard freshmen on Nov. 5, Ted was “tackling low and hard and seeming not to mind the way his opponents trampled on him,” a scribe recounted. “Once he was laid out, and for three minutes the play was delayed.”
Ted contacted his parents after the game, asking to come home. Theodore replied immediately, urging his son against doing so because of the upcoming freshmen game versus Yale. “Of course we would be overjoyed to see you, but I don’t want you to leave if it is going to interfere with your football,” the president wrote. ” You must not lose the chance of getting into the Yale game.”
Ted obeyed his father and competed well in an interim game before Yale, as the Harvard frosh defeated Cushing Academy. “Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., played an excellent game for the Crimson, made a number of good tackles, and twice fell on the ball after a fumble,” The New York Tribune reported.
Cushing Academy was not Yale University, however. The Yale association predominated American football, boasting fearsome players on every squad. And Edith Roosevelt knew as much in Washington, fretting over Ted’s pending risk against Yale freshmen; his father worried, too, while also anticipating glorious opportunity for the son.
The freshmen season would climax on Nov. 18 at Cambridge, Harvard versus Yale, the opening match in a week-long series between famed grid rivals to culminate with clash of varsities. Alum Teddy Roosevelt, wistful perhaps for football magic on the Harvard campus, and unmistakable in the proud concern of a player’s father, wrote Ted:
Of course I hope you get into the Yale game, but it doesn’t make much real difference, for you have been on the team and at the training table and you have evidently shown that you are a game player. Orville Frantz [of Harvard YMCA] was here at lunch the other day and he said that you had been playing with just the right spirit. Still, though I would not have had you fail to play, and think it was a mighty good thing for you, I sympathize with Mother in being glad that after next Saturday your playing will be through!
Your loving father
Scrawny Ted Roosevelt needed his dad’s “right spirit,” or pride, prayers and whatever more to withstand Yale football. The game became Ted’s personal worst and most injurious as Harvard lost, 16-0. “Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., was so repeatedly pounded by the heavier Yale freshmen… that he was taken out in the second half and carried off the field,” The New York Times reported on Sunday morning, Nov. 19. In Washington, The Post placed a graphic account atop Page 3:
THEODORE HURT IN GAME
President’s Son Carried from the Field Unable to Stir
Special to The Washington Post
Cambridge, Mass., Nov. 18—Worn out by hard fighting against a team of men far heavier than he, battered and smashed by end plays, in which he was trampled down and stepped upon, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., was to-day laid out in the Harvard-Yale freshman football game so that he had to be carried from the field.
When he was in the play, young Roosevelt put up a plucky game. He tackled low and hard, and although light, he got into every play fiercely. When the Yale giants began finally to wear him out he did not show the least signs of quitting, but fought it out gamely until he was fairly staggering with exhaustion.
He made some fearless tackling, but after he got groggy, Yale sent play after play at him.
Once he was knocked out and lay on the ground for some time, but persisted in remaining in the game. Finally a play came around his end that proved too much for the 145-pound boy. When the whistle blew and the men were pulled off the heap, there, underneath everyone else, lay young Roosevelt, cut, bruised, and bleeding, unable to stir. This time he did not protest, but allowed himself to be carried to the locker building, where he was patched up under the doctor’s care.
“Too bad he’s so light,” said McClintock, the sandy-haired coach of the Yale team. “He’s the pluckiest man on the team, and if he had a little more beef he’d make things just a little more interesting.”
Reading The Post at the White House, Edith Roosevelt and daughter Ethel reacted angrily, convinced that Yale targeted Ted for the beating. Theodore acted as football politician, muscular moralist, in writing—or coaching—his son.
Good for you! Of course I am sorry that Yale beat us, but I am very glad you made the team and I am not merely glad but very proud that you should have played as you evidently did play in the game. Of course I only know what the papers say but they are united in praising you for having put up an exceedingly resolute and plucky fight and they say that in spite of being lighter than any other man in the line on either team you nevertheless held your own well until you got groggy under the battering plays directed at you. If one of the Boston papers gave a fuller account of the game I wish you would sent it to me. I only hope there will not be any feeling caused in your class by the prominence the newspapers have given to you. …
Incidentally I very sincerely hope that now that football is over you will be able to do better in your studies. A record of C’s with an occasional D does not allow much margin for accidents, and while I think it was entirely satisfactory during the time you were playing football, I hope you can improve upon it a little now. …
Mother and Ethel were very indignant about Yale, and Mother especially was inclined to take a very dark view of the conduct of the Yale team in playing at you. I think it was rather a compliment than otherwise; but anyhow you are the last man in the world that would squeal about it. I think it is evident that the Yale men admire you, judging from the comments of their coach, and of course your game is to be perfectly good-natured and friendly with them and say that everything was all right. I am very proud of what you have done and I feel that you have lived right up to the doctrines you have preached and that you have upheld the family credit in great shape.
The president’s typed letter concluded with a P.S. in his handwriting. “I am mighty glad you played football this year,” he repeated to Ted, “and I am not at all sorry that you are too light to try for the varsity, so that this will really be your last year hard at it.”
Ted replied to his parents in positive language, writing:
They [Yale] played a clean, straight game and played no favorites. I met a good many of them whom I knew after the game and we had a friendly drink together. They beat us by simply and plainly outplaying us. … The report in the paper about Yale directing their interference against me was all bosh. Of course I knew all that rotten talk about come out in the papers, but it could not be helped. … Well, I am very glad that I made the team anyway. I feel so large in my black sweater with the numerals on. Saturday’s game was a hard one, as I knew it was bound to be. I was not seriously hurt at all. Just shaken up and bruised. I broke my nose.
Ted’s crushed nose would require surgery. An eye was blackened and the neck wrenched, and he likely sustained brain trauma, for symptoms visible during the Yale game. A reporter located him in Cambridge, looked at the teen’s swollen and discolored face, the bloodied eye, and asked Ted if football were brutal and whether he agreed with his father on reform.
“I don’t wish to be in the newspapers,” replied Theodore, Jr., reflecting his mother. “I’ve been there altogether too much already.”
Roosevelt wrote Camp to say that Yale played fair against his son, without malicious intent as alleged by the First Lady. But from thereon in football crisis, the president entrusted less authority to Camp and his Yale-tilted committee for resolving anything. “The moral reform movement became a personal concern of the Roosevelt family after the Yale-Harvard freshman game,” surmised Lewis.
1905: Football Tempest Subsides on Presidential Instruction
Within days of Ted’s injury against Yale, T.R. strengthened his presidential stance on the football question. Having begun the dialogue six weeks before, Roosevelt decided to issue rule recommendations for football reform. He summoned another gridiron insider to Washington for relaying message to the press, Dr. J. William White of Philadelphia, a University of Pennsylvania football booster and professor of surgery.
Foremost, the president opposed a ban on tackle football and sought “to minimize danger while preserving the essential manly and vigorous characteristics of the game,” newspapers reported after White’s trip to Washington. Roosevelt wanted a uniform athletics code for amateur eligibility, presumably administered by a national organization. Roosevelt wanted field rules without loopholes and rigid enforcement by referees. He called for penalizing institutions and coaches when athletes committed severe violations, and for “gentlemen’s agreement” among schools to ensure compliance. T.R. wanted football officials to eliminate brutality and dirty tricks on the field.
“Brutality and foul play should receive the same summary punishment given to a man who cheats at cards, who strikes a foul blow in boxing,” said White, reciting statements of Roosevelt for newsmen. “The umpire must have the widest latitude in enforcing this principle, even to the extent of ordering not only individual players, but whole teams off the field, and college presidents should hold to the sharpest accountability the umpire who permits for brutal football in any game.”
So-called brutality should include “slugging” and “kneeing,” said Penn officials, while “piling on” and “straight arm” jabbing should constitute “unnecessary roughness.” A case occurred on Thanksgiving Day, when star quarterback Walter Eckersall was flattened unconscious in a controversial 2-0 win for the University of Chicago. A referee ruled a Michigan player maliciously decked Eckersall and kneed him in the head, and the offender was ejected from this title match of western football.
Roosevelt demanded such uncompromising enforcement of football code and began pushing his plan privately with game officials and college leaders, communicating largely by mail. He met personally with Woodrow Wilson, for example, the Princeton University president destined for Washington and the Oval Office.
Roosevelt visited the Princeton campus to attend the Army-Navy game on Dec. 2, leading a “most brilliant official throng” of his cabinet members and congressional lawmakers, affirming grid fandom on Capitol Hill. The New York Tribune observed that “the President saw a smart, able exhibition of the great American undergraduate game, strenuously played… but free from any taint of foul play or personal rancor.”
Football season wound down in 1905, awash in news of injury and death, and a professor blasted the game from the University of Chicago, proclaiming the only option to be “stop playing it.” Shailer Mathews, dean of the Chicago divinity school, accused newspapers of elevating football into “a social obsession—a monomania.” Mathews labeled the football institution as a cartel, a “boy-killing, man-mutilating, money-making, education-prostituting, gladiatorial sport.”
Football abolitionists like Mathews were scarce, including among educators, and game injuries inspired no one’s forceful countermeasure. Social Darwinism pulsed through cultural thought and behavior, especially with blustery T.R. in the White House, and even academics could sound blood-thirsty. When committees opened work nationwide to tackle football issues, none touted a priority of ensuring player protection to resolve the tempest.
But severe injuries were systemic of American football, from colleges to sandlots, and the 1905 casualties seemed extraordinary under intense spotlight. The Chicago Tribune announced 19 fatalities for the football season as of Nov. 26, but data were actually routine besides the death of a young woman, and unverifiable, also typical of annual press reporting.
Coaches and trainers summarily discounted casualty figures. “The number of deaths from football this season was nineteen. The number last season was about the same, and I don’t think there has been any increase in the death list for many years,” said Columbia coach Bill Morley. “When you consider that during the football season probably 100,000 players are engaged in the game, then the death rate is wonderfully small.”
Officials declared football safe as basketball, bicycling and polo, and safer than baseball, the sporting “pastime” which would kill excessively until advent of hard headgear. Football officials blamed death in their sport on poor player specimens, along with inadequate training and medical supervision, but they overlooked common violence as a factor.
Game insiders also argued with each other, about helmet designs, colliding technique to avoid head impacts, and definitions of brutality and unnecessary roughness. They divided sharply over Walter Camp, whether the recognized Father of American Football should continue as czar of rule-making after 27 years. Camp had image problems. Journalists were exposing cash riches and shady professionalism around Yale football, and many foes questioned the winning regime—22 national championships in 34 seasons—that they believed Camp rigged through rule-making and further influence. Many in the sport wished to see him dethroned from atop the rules committee.
John Heisman, coach of Georgia Tech, alluded to football infighting for his commentary in The Atlanta Constitution on the Sunday before Thanksgiving. Heisman claimed that “truth to tell, this rules committee has never quite succeeded in satisfying the game’s detractors.” Heisman wrote:
At the close of the season 1904 the demand for radical changes became so widespread and insistent that it seemed a heavy impression would surely be made upon the committee members and startling legislation would be the result.
But, though the members really sat up and took notice, really took an interest in the discussion, pondered much and discussed more, the absolute result of their deliberations was nil—the changes made proved trifling in the extreme and the game this year is just about as it was last year.
The effect… there is now more criticism—intelligent and otherwise, more howling down—of the game than has ever been known before, and in this crisis it becomes the duty of everyone who knows football by experience and observation to speak up manfully, yet with discretion, with well-weighed words and temperateness, but, above all, with honesty. Let neither the cranks for, nor the cranks against the game permit their prejudices to run away with their sound common sense.
Heisman agreed with Camp that a “10-yard rule” for awarding a first down would discourage the grinding interior plays to gain just 5 yards for retaining possession, as the rule stood. But Heisman was staunch advocate of forward passing, and after years of backroom lobbying with the likes of Camp, fruitlessly, he publicly revealed the stonewalling:
Last year, I suggested to the rules committee that if they really wanted to open up the game… they might rule forward passing permissible. This, too, was discussed and partly favored but was finally dismissed for the reason that is would make the game too much like basketball. To my way of thinking, no great harm would be done if it did resemble basketball a little more.
In one word, then, I think mass play is the trouble with modern football. … Let us do away with mass pushing and we can get the smaller fellows into the game again—many more of the general run of students at large can take part in the game.
Secondly, it will do away with what brutalizing tendency the game now may have.
Thirdly, it will please the spectators by its greater attractiveness. …
I confidently predict that with the abolition of the mass play, the adverse criticism will subside if not entirely die out.
The large majority of college administrators echoed Coach Heisman, supporting “radical revision” of football for the open format. Only a handful of schools banned football. The headliner was Columbia University, where administrators abolished the sport during Thanksgiving break, enraging students upon their return. Educators elsewhere sympathized—with Columbia students.
“I think that is going entirely too far,” remarked Cyrus Northrop, president at the University of Minnesota. “I am not in favor of the elimination of football from college sports. There is no question but that changes should be made in the game as played at present. In my opinion, the rules can be so amended as to make the plays more open [with] more punting and end runs, and fewer mass formations and scrimmages.”
Camp, for his part, maintained that “the 10-yard rule suggested by him last Spring would cure the game by opening the play,” reported The New York Times. Camp said, “In open play the slugging and dirty work sometimes done in scrimmage would be impossible, because it could be seen. If we can get the game so that the spectators can see all of it, public opinion would stop foul play. The 10-yard rule would allow lighter men to get into the open game, which would be an advantage that some people are urging.” Camp promised his committee would finally fix football, but skeptics were legion.
“No Experts Need Apply,” The Times headlined over a story with Harvard president Eliot, who sneered: “I find it impossible to believe that the committees, coaches, and umpires that have ruined the game are to be trusted with the reform or replacement.”
Eliot also professed no faith in a fledgling group of educators and athletic representatives, outside the Camp committee, who where meeting to pursue new football structure. The organizer was chancellor Henry B. MacCracken of New York University, who asked Eliot to lead the upstart organization, but the Harvard leader declined. Eliot proposed a moratorium on football, a “cooling down” period for ridding the game of unsportsmanlike attitude. “To get rid of this vicious spirit, I think we must stop intercollegiate football for a time,” Eliot said.
The MacCracken group did impress Harvard men besides Eliot, including Roosevelt and football coach Bill Reid, an attendee of the White House summit and member of Camp’s rules committee. MacCracken’s national organization was building momentum, adding representatives of more colleges large and small. The group sought to preserve football through “radical revision,” with casualties to be expected. “Football is football: It is not a parlor game,” said a group spokesman. “What we shall aim to do in changing the rules will be to limit, so far as possible, the number of injuries.”
When the MacCracken convention appointed its committee for representation in football rule-making, newspapers heralded the development. The Harrisburg Daily Independent in Pennsylvania reported:
SIXTY-TWO COLLEGES FOR SAFER FOOTBALL
Resolutions Pass Denouncing the Game As Now Played
New York, Dec. 29—The great college game of football will be saved to the American public. The greatest movement in behalf of the sport was inaugurated at the Murray Hill hotel yesterday when representatives from sixty-two colleges and universities from every section of the United States convened at the invitation of Chancellor MacCracken, of New York University… football reform seems assured.
The salvation of the convention hung upon a resolution favoring the appointment of a committee to request a conference with the [Camp] committee that has had the keeping of the game in its hand in former years. This was the battle of the meeting. The radicals advised self-constituted committee, and it was a difficult task to swing the sentiment of the convention into a favorable consideration of this resolution. However, after the hardest kind of battle, the practical men in the conference managed to convince the others that recognition of the present Intercollegiate Rules Committee was necessary if any effective reforms were to be made, and that the work of revising the rules would have to be undertaken with that body as a part to any action.
A committee of seven was therefore appointed to revise the rules and to seek an amalgamation with the present Rules Committee.
Harvard football men saw chance for a coup in rule-making: By politically playing the new group against the standing committee, Camp and Yale could be dislodged from central power. Harvard associates also sought control of the football debate for keeping their own program intact at Cambridge, heading off threat of suspension by the Eliot faction. Harvard men began making noise about leaving the football establishment if Camp’s committee were not receptive to “radical” reform. Speculation had Harvard in position to lead a new football association that would envelop the MacCracken group.
But before Harvard powerbrokers could gerrymander policy to “clean” the collision game—with help from booster Roosevelt at the White House—they confronted a pair of roadblocks: defection of a star Crimson player and frightful research on team injuries.
Harvard football had barely missed calamity with captain D.J. Hurley, a halfback who suffered delayed brain hemorrhaging of hits from Dartmouth on Nov. 18. Symptoms presented days after the game in Hurley’s bizarre behavior and slurred speech on campus. Hurley, hospitalized for a week until the intracranial clot subsided, would never play football again.
Star tackle Karl Brill quit the Harvard team in December, citing his class load in engineering, but primarily for protesting football’s inescapable violence. Brill’s decision was headlined as unprecedented for a talented player in his prime. He wrote in a prepared statement for press:
I have been in the game 10 years, playing tackle most of the time. I believe the human body was never meant to withstand the enormous strain which football demands. Moreover, I don’t believe the game is right. I dislike it on moral grounds. It is a mere gladiatorial combat. It is brutal throughout. When you are opposed to a strong man, you have got to get the better of him by violence.
I fail to see where the gray matter in a man’s head is exercised at all, nor am I able to see how football is the intricate game some proclaim it to be. Neither do I see how the game can be reformed or remedied. Sooner or later I believe we shall come to our sense and abolish it from all American institutions of learning.
A landmark medical study rattled Harvard football in January, documenting the program’s injury plague for 1905, co-authored by team doctors and published by Boston Medical and Surgical Journal. Lead author Dr. Edward H. Nichols, a Boston surgeon and Harvard professor, worked closely with football coach Bill Reid and was well-acquainted with fan alum President Roosevelt. Nichols, a Harvard baseball legend as a former star captain-coach, had attended the White House football summit with Reid. The medical news was breaking just as Reid orchestrated inside overthrow of the Camp committee.
The Harvard football study startled anyone with comprehension, particularly for revelations on brain trauma. Nichols and co-author Dr. Homer B. Smith gathered casualty information through surveying players and monitoring practices and games. Approximately 150 players aspired for the varsity or ” university team,” with about half accounting for the bulk of collision exposures, and 145 injuries were recorded, qualified in severity ranging from “moderate” to “great.”
Twenty-two bone fractures occurred in breaks of fibula, pelvis [4 cases], rib , clavicle, finger , nose and neck—the latter a case of fracture in the second cervical vertebra, which apparently did not involve permanent paralysis and deadly bed infection. Hurley’s brain bleed was perhaps worst among Harvard injuries, and his recovery continued into 1906.
Injured players were sidelined from football for a total of 1,057 days and cumulatively missed 175 days of college classes. After the season, 35 players of 110 who answered queries confirmed they were still recovering from injuries, and researchers suspected significant under-reporting of lingering pain and dysfunction. “Many of the joint injuries are of such a character as to be likely to be progressively worse and many of the injuries to the shoulder are certain to cause some disability in later years,” Nichols and Smith wrote for BMSJ.
For “head injuries,” news scribes highlighted the findings on Harvard football; Nichols and Smith had diagnosed 19 brain concussions on the 1905 varsity. Newspapers reported:
A sensational feature of the observations of the surgeons is their statement that cases of concussion of the brain were frequent. In fact, only two games were played during the entire season in which a case of concussion did not occur.
A range of symptoms accompanied brain trauma on the football field, often detected from the sidelines. In the journal article, Nichols and Smith stated a concussed, oblivious player might “run through a considerable series of plays before his mates noticed that he was mentally irresponsible.” The researchers continued:
The mental state of the players who had concussion was variable, some being highly excitable and hysterical, others merely confused, and in a few cases, knocked completely unconscious. In every case there was a certain loss of memory, both previous and subsequent to the injury. … Concussion was treated by the players in general as a trivial injury and rather regarded as a joke.
Possible brain damage of football players was incalculable, but many specialists believed TBI could lead to mental disorder, chronic disease, and suicide. “The real seriousness of the injury is not certain,” Nichols and Smith observed.
For general casualty among major sports, tackle football ranked first, far ahead, according to the following study conclusions:
(1) The number, severity and permanence of the injuries which are received in playing football are very much greater than generally is credited or believed.
(2) The great number of the injuries come in the “pile” and not in the open plays, although serious injuries are received in the open.
(3) The number of injuries is inherent in the game itself, and is not due especially to close competition, as is shown by the fact that the proportion of injuries received in games and in practice is about the same.
(4) A large percentage of the injuries is unavoidable.
(5) The percentage of injuries is incomparably greater in football than in any other of the major sports.
(6) The game does not develop the best type of men physically, because too great prominence is given to weight without corresponding nervous energy.
(7) Constant medical supervision of the game where large numbers of men are engaged is a necessity and not a luxury, although it is a question if a game, requiring the constant attendance of two trained surgeons, is played under desirable conditions.
(8) The percentage of injury is much too great for any mere sport.
The Harvard study was publicized nationwide, drawing “much interest” as debate raged over football, according to The New York Tribune, and response was strong from the American Medical Association in Chicago.
The medical writers of JAMA editorialized against football as a health menace: “We may say at once that their [Nichols and Smith] conclusions are entirely against the game as judged from its medical standpoint.” JAMA editors rated concussion findings as likely the “most serious feature” of the research and discussed potential brain damage for impact victims such as football players; they wrote:
When a condition like [concussion] develops as the result of an injury, the central nervous system has received a very severe shaking up. There was a time when it was considered that convulsions and other untoward incidents in the conscious life of the individual were not likely to be followed by serious consequences. This is not the opinion at present time, however. One of the questions always asked by nerve specialists with regard to nervous disease developing later on in life, is whether or not the individual ever suffered from convulsions in childhood. A state of affairs in which the individual acts as an automaton after an injury is not so different from a convulsive seizure. If the one is supposed to have serious consequences so may the other. At the present time no one is ready to say whether concussions of the brain may or may not have serious consequences in after life.
JAMA editors viewed the Harvard study as red alert for educators who sanctioned football’s bloody spectacle at schools and colleges, as well as for the medical institution’s prevailing laissez faire approach. Game officials and advocates were chastised for their rationale that football benefits somehow outweighed risks. The JAMA editorial continued:
The whole report of the two surgeons in charge of the Harvard squad should be read by every prominent educator throughout the country, and it should be the duty of the members of the medical profession to see that it is called particularly to their attention. Surely, no one will consider after this calm exposure of the inside history of football injuries, even at a great university where no effort is spared to bring the men into the pink of condition, that football is to be considered a game without serious risks, no matter what the preparation, or that it is to be compared with any of the other sports in this matter of liability to serious injury. An attempt has been made to gloss over football’s worst aspects by widely published suggestions that no game is entirely without the danger of death under accidental circumstances. In football, however, as the Harvard surgeons emphasize, the injuries are absolutely dependent on the present methods of playing the game itself, and are bound to occur.
In 2014, science historian Emily A. Harrison characterized the Nichols-Smith literature as resounding for the problem of traumatic brain injury in American football, long ago at Harvard, grid bastion of the day. “Concussion was deemed something that could happen almost invisibly in the noise and action of a game,” Harrison wrote. “The concussion crisis had begun.”
Nevertheless in 1906, lest any football abolitionist took up the research of Nichols and Smith, the Harvard team physicians couched political caveat within passages they wrote largely like a sport condemnation. In fact, these sports doctors asserted football casualties could be reduced to acceptable margin. “Leaving out all other objections to the game, ethical and practical…,” Nichols and Smith wrote in their conclusion No. 9, finishing the BMSJ article, “the conditions under which the game is played should be so modified as to diminish to a very great degree the number of injuries.”
All shades of football supporters denied field danger was insolvable, purporting that injuries were controllable through reform. Harvard men bore this popular banner with Dr. Nichols out front, discussing his football study with press on Jan. 15, saying, “I think the rules can be changed to make them answer the demands for an improved game.”
Events followed in formality. The MacCracken committee gained a place at the rule-making table, joining up with the old committee after members relented, and autocratic Walter Camp was overthrown as chief. Reid keyed the maneuver, encouraged by Roosevelt; the Harvard coach was appointed as rules secretary, supplanting Camp at top.
The conjoined committees adopted a name, the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States, for establishing a bureaucracy extending beyond elite eastern football, evolving toward becoming known, in a few years, as the National Collegiate Athletic Association, or NCAA. “Abuses did not end with the organization of the Association,” surmised Guy Maxton Lewis, a half-century later. “Profits to support winning teams continued to motivate athletic associations.”
Football rolled on, with official concern for player protection only when convenient, or hardly ever. The football institution focused on protecting itself, which was the realistic mission always within reach. The casualty drumbeat continued, impossible to tone down, modify, legislate away.
In July 1906 football rules secretary Bill Reid detailed newly ratified measures in his lengthy review published by newspapers and journals. The new rules required advancing 10 yards within three plays for a first down, to encourage outside runs; required a “neutral zone” or scrimmage line between teams, of ball’s length, to provide clearer view for referees and spectators; allowed forward passing with restrictions; defined illicit tactics constituting brutality and unnecessary roughness, to aid enforcement; and required minimally six offensive players on the line of scrimmage at snap of the ball, limiting mass formations.
During the 1906 football season pressmen collected fewer cases of death and survivor casualties, and the unvalidated numbers were generally considered as sign of improvement. Critics still scoffed, but “safe” football was never the serious goal of reformers, anyway, reminded The New York Times. On the contrary, mass formations had become maddening for spectators, according to the editorial: “It was the dullness of the shove and push, the ‘mass and charge,’ that was really deadly.”
The Times praised new rulemakers for creating quick, agile field action, stating “it seems that they have saved the game of football.” President Roosevelt drew credit, too, at home and in Canada, where tackle football had taken root. “His influence is expected to be far-reaching,” opined The Winnipeg Tribune, “and the next few years will doubtless see a marked improvement all along the line.”
Roosevelt wasn’t so sure himself. Speaking at Harvard in early 1907, he claimed football reform was succeeding at preparatory schools because of moral administrators like his pal Endicott Peabody at Groton—but not at the colleges, still. The president continued to belittle “nonsense” of football abolitionists, but he blamed college officials and referees for poorly enforcing the new rules he helped establish. “[Roosevelt] declared that it was his opinion that the right kind of umpiring and refereeing would remove the evils of football,” reported The Boston Daily Globe.
Roosevelt said, “The preparatory schools are able to keep football clean, and to develop the right spirit in the players without the slightest necessity ever arising to so much as consider the question of abolishing it. There is no excuse whatever for colleges failing to show the same capacity… the experience of every good preparatory school shows that the abuse is in no shape necessarily attendant upon the game.”
The president’s dubious philosophy on football “abuse,” including upholding prep schools as above the maw, fell apart the following season, when schools private and public produced the majority of reported fatalities in the tackle game.
JAMA editors responded quickly, issuing their unprecedented medical condemnation of football—for juvenile participants, at least—following the championship games of 1907. Regarding college football, JAMA charged that officials and associates weren’t delivering on their promise of “safer” play.
“It was confidently asserted that as the years went on and the new rules came more and more into vogue, and the open game more played, the number of fatalities and injuries would decrease further,” JAMA doctors editorialized. “To most people this sounded plausible enough, and we are not prepared to declare the new regulations a failure simply because of this year’s increase of 40 percent in the number of [reported] deaths. For all the fatalities except two were in high school or boys’ teams, by whom the new rules are not so carefully followed, and over whom coaches and trainers do not generally exercise supervision. It is only fair, therefore, to withhold final judgment on the effect of the new rules [for college football] until more facts are at hand as to their definite relationship to the games in which injuries and death resulted.”
“There need be no such hesitation, however, in deciding that football is no game for boys to play.”
1912: Forgetting Football TBI and Disease For Posterity
Football deaths made major headlines for years after 1905, with reported data unverifiable and varying. Journalists collected fatality cases by “clipping” newsprint flows, and their 1909 tallies figured badly for so-called football reform—“the most disastrous season in the history of the sport,” remarked a New York scribe—with reported numbers ranging from 29 to 33 deaths, mostly schoolboys. Although Harvard’s Dr. Nichols was recording dwindling casualties on his team, year by year, news analysts and independent doctors saw injuries only rising in football, particularly for cases of brain trauma or “concussion.”
Many critics blamed the emerging open format for riskier colliding among speeding players, compared to slower mass formations. A national news commentary stated “not even the football rulemakers can wipe out the bone-breaking features of the game by substituting one kind of danger for another.” And The Washington Herald opined: “The open play game, brought about by the 10-yard rule and other innovations, supposed to lessen the perils of the gridiron, seems to be a failure as far as any great saving of life and limb is concerned.”
Herald editorial writers contended brain concussion “may cause permanent bodily effects,” adding that TBI “seems a direct argument against the open game, as practically all of the brain injuries reported were received in running tackles, made prominent by the open game, in contrast to the close struggles in the mass plays of the past.”
The theory of tackling with “head up” and placed to one side, heard since turn of the century, entered public discussion once again after the 1909 season, debacle. A New Jersey sportswriter intoned: “In any event ‘tackle’ with heads up should be substituted for ‘tackle’ with heads down in the football contest. Athletes may get along with broken noses and gradual elimination of front teeth but the skull is valuable and rules should be made to hold it intact if possible.”
Former president Theodore Roosevelt detected folly in football policy, regardless his own responsibility. In 1910 Roosevelt spoke at Cambridge University in England, where he complimented rugby, the British collision sport of running, passing and kicking. Roosevelt liked rugby for having no scrimmage line and prohibiting “interference” or blocking to lead ball-carriers. And there was no armor.
T.R. lamented the state of American football. “There is one thing I wish I could learn from you…,” he told the British audience, “how to make football a less homicidal pastime. I don’t wish to speak as a mere sentimentalist, but I don’t think manslaughter should be a normal accompaniment. I do think a first-class football match between two American university teams is a corking game, but I should like to modify the game in order to draw the teeth of the men who cry out against football, and thus deprive them of a valid argument against a good sport.”
“He Makes a Plea for Human Football,” The New York Herald headlined back home, of Roosevelt abroad.
While T.R. no longer steered football rule-making, NCAA officials professed their aim for humane play. They approved new, unrestricted forward passing, and critics were appeased. Forms of the forward pass had been sanctioned in rules since 1906, but restrictions discouraged its use, such as mandate on when to throw on the field, where to throw and how far, and loss of ball possession for an incomplete attempt.
Stifling rules were loosened in 1910 then done away with by the NCAA. The forward pass was fully legalized in 1912, for throwing from anywhere on the field behind the line of scrimmage, for any distance.
Fans loved action of the passing game, but effect on football risk was unclear in coming years. The sporting press reported slight decline in deaths through World War I, but game mortality and injury rates were not ascertained. The NCAA did not bother with football research, fewer journalists cared anymore, and no valid epidemiological frame was launched. Football ills became passé as world and national affairs occupied public concern and rhetoric.
The gridiron had survived, endured as prime human escape, American fantasy, nothing to really worry about. The nation stood enraptured, gratified with football and its social rituals of the season. Theodore Roosevelt continued glorifying “clean” football, speaking to boys and parents, and Woodrow Wilson applied the T.R. model for exploiting the game to enhance his own presidential popularity.
Wilson, elected two terms to the White House from 1913 to 1921, traveled with his “Wilson Guard” of football stars for appearances. The pacifist president and academic had served as secretary of the Princeton football association in college, avoiding the field battle himself. President Wilson applauded NCAA measures to finally establish the open game, years after the failed reform of Roosevelt’s influence. “The new rules are doing much to bring football to a high level as a sport, for its brutal features are being done away with and better elements retained,” Wilson said.
One football official wasn’t convinced, given the ongoing pervasive casualties. “I am in doubt as to whether the game is safer…,” said Jonas A. Babbit, NCAA rules chairman, “but public opinion seems to hold that it is safer.”
A century later, the analyst Harrison rued football’s historic whitewash for brain injuries and disease, commenting for the Somatosphere website. Harrison wrote that “ample evidence existed at the turn of the 19th century to make a convincing case of concussion’s dangers at that time.” She continued:
Society forgot what it knew because significant work was done by football’s supporters to hush up evidence in the media and other popular discussions, to discourage scientific research, and to legitimize football by allying it with morally-reputable institutions and with cultural ideals of manliness that carried great weight at that time. What was known was unlearned, forgotten, pushed away into a corner. Over time, the first surge of the concussion crisis settled away into the storage bins of history.
“In the long history of the concussion crisis there is a story,” Harrison concluded, “that once a society comes to know something is unsafe, those with a stake in its perpetuation prefer that people forget.”
Matt Chaney is an author, editor, and consultant on public issues in sport, specializing in American football. Chaney, MA in media studies, is a former college football player and coach whose books include Spiral of Denial: Muscle Doping in American Football, self-published in 2009.Chaney’s study for graduate thesis, co-published with the University of Central Missouri in 2001, analyzed print sport-media coverage of anabolic substances in football from 1983-1999. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the website for more information.