The 1890s: Brain Risks Confirmed in American Football

Brain Injury in American Football: 130 Years of Knowledge and Denial

The 1890s: Cerebral Risks Confirmed on Gridiron

Part One in A Series

By Matt Chaney

Posted Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Copyright ©2015 by Matthew L. Chaney

As American football officials tell the story today, brain injury among players is a fledgling issue, identified only in recent years, the 2000s.

Administrators, coaches, trainers, doctors, and researchers of contemporary football say they have only begun to grasp brain risk for players, while otherwise declaring no need for alarm. Officials say parents and children must not worry because dangers are exaggerated and countermeasures are in place.

The game embraces “concussion awareness” as never before, committing unprecedented dollars to research and prevention. “Heads Up Football,” for example, the program said to teach headless hitting to youths, is a household term for its $45 million in development and publicity funded by the NFL and players union.

But are traumatic brain injuries [TBI] and policy-making actually newfound for the collision sport?

Is the football institution—generations of administrators, coaches, trainers, doctors—really just comprehending TBI among players and what might be done? That’s the official claim, anyway, especially for legal defense against lawsuits filed by former players and families.

Historical events tell a different football story, meanwhile, in an extensive review of news databases by this investigator. Generally, the factual past conflicts with official versions proffered today.

Because the dilemma of head injuries inherent for tackle football—brain “concussion” foremost, broadly defined for varying states of severity—has reared regularly in public since the Victorian Era. Periodic controversies have spanned three centuries and affected most decades of the game, including the 1890s, 1900s, 1920s, 1930s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and 2010s.

Along the way, football has seen every type of brain trauma in players, consistently, predictably. Countless cases publicized since the 1800s have ranged from debilitating headaches to fatal hemorrhaging, and officials have tried much for preventing casualties while managing “return to play” of injured athletes, if never realizing success.

Several outright failed initiatives have been recycled, repackaged and promoted anew in periods over the continuum—like old “head up” theory, publicized in 1925 but presently sold as cutting-edge, Heads Up “technique.”

ChaneysBlog presents a series on the history of football collision, brain injury, and policy, with this first article examining football in its formative phase, the latter 1800s—when officials made promises of safety reform that echo yet.

So-called protective helmets, rule changes, medical supervision, proper coaching, and safer colliding have been promoted for a century and longer in American football.

1892: Gridiron Violence, ‘Flying Wedge’ Ignite Public Furor

As American football’s first injury crisis festered in 1892, the Harvard University team stoked controversy, unveiling its “flying wedge” blocking formation against rival Yale during the most publicized game of the year.

Returning a kickoff, two wings of Harvard players sprinted downfield on the attack, leading the ball carrier. At last instant 10 Harvard men converged in a V-wedge, “flying into Yale’s right wing like a crimson simoon,” a writer recounted. Twenty yards were gained on the return, a substantial run for grinding “mass” football of the time.

“What a grand play!” proclaimed The New York Times, for “a half ton of bone and muscle coming into collision with a man weighing 160 or 170 pounds.”

“The trick was so pretty that even the Yale men were disposed to applaud,” reported The New York Evening World. Yale “coachers” pronounced the latest wedge scheme “as one of the finest plays ever seen.”

Critics of football, in turn, deplored the flying wedge as epitome of gratuitous violence in sport, and on behalf of higher education no less.

“The fatal twisting of the neck of a football player and several other horrifying details in the football news… add to the growing demand that unless the leaders of the game themselves will ‘regulate’ the playing as they promise and profess to do, the police shall,” The Boston Advertiser editorialized. “The public cannot stand these harrowing casualties.”

“That the rules governing intercollegiate football must be changed seems to be the general opinion of the sporting public and those college graduates who are making a constant study of the great game,” asserted a national commentary. “The increased opportunities for accidents and the brutality which has marked many of the recent big games have made radical changes necessary.”

Football supporters laughed, contending dangers were exaggerated, led by Harvard dean of engineering Nathaniel S. Shaler, a former player. “I have never known a single man, personally, to be killed or permanently hurt in the game,” Shaler said. “The death rate in football is way down.” By comparison, Shaler noted that horse transportation and boating had killed nine of his friends.

The Charlotte Observer editorialized “that there is a good deal of humbuggery in all the recent clamor about the dangers of football,” continuing that boys “are liable to get hurt at almost any game in which they engage—unless it be croquet.”

“This question of football is a matter of family government rather then the public’s business,” the newspaper continued. “If the parents are willing for the son to play football and take chances, it is none of the public’s affair. After the player passes 21, it is nobody’s business but his own.”

Football advocacy did not impress many Americans. Some wanted “foot-ball” banned from college campuses that hosted it in pursuit of financial gain and prestige, a quarter-century after students organized the game at eastern universities.

Opposition flourished in higher education and the popular press, pressuring game policy-makers to act, particularly Walter Camp of Yale University, the coach, referee and rule-maker who would be known as the Father of American Football.

Camp headed the Yale coaching staff enamored with mass plays like the flying wedge, but he knew football suffered for its image as a sanctioned brawl. “The protest… by the faculties of a large number of colleges is having its effect,” he acknowledged.

The game was dangerous and barbaric at eyesight, and no one could calculate the casualty numbers, undoubtedly high, as football expanded west through schools, colleges, and athletic clubs.

The sport had begun as an “open” game of rugby sprints and passes, but rule changes led by Camp in the 1880s established a line of scrimmage between opposing teams of 11 men each, and ball possession for one side at a time. Possession was retained for gaining five yards in three “downs.”

Rules legitimized “interference,” or blocking for a ball carrier, then “low” tackling. Offensive planning evolved to emphasize brutish players for “momentum” starts, clustered in walls and wedges, to make running strikes at a defense.

Analyst Michael Oriard observed that the rule allowing tackling below the waist “virtually eliminated open-field running, led to increasingly brutal (and boring) mass play, altered the very shape of football players by tilting the advantage overwhelmingly toward sheer bulk, and necessitated the development of padded armor to protect the newly vulnerable players.”

A news writer panned the Harvard-Yale game in 1893, complaining that “the great battle did not bristle with interesting plays. There was a constant pile in the middle of the field, from which it was half the time impossible to pick the man with the ball.”

Hazardous tactics created repulsive scenes. Players pushed and pulled their ball carriers for yardage, inflicting injury. Elbowing abounded, along with grabbing, tossing, trampling, and punching. A New York reporter noted a “rule disqualifying a man who uses his clenched fist is strongly advocated.”

“The players on the line often sparred with one another, shoved, or even slugged one another before the snap of the ball,” wrote historian John Sayle Watterson. “Guards and tackles could take up positions in the backfield because the rules did not specify the linemen had to be at the scrimmage line.”

“Once a player left the game, he could not return. Hence, injured players often staggered around the field until they collapsed or asked to be taken out of the game.”

At end of the 1893 football season, officials could dally no longer on reform. “There is quite a popular demand for the abolition of the flying wedge and other dangerous mass plays in football,” stated a Kansas writer.

The New York Times editorialized: “A game in which some of the players are almost certain to be knocked senseless is a game in which some of them are very liable to be maimed for life or even to be killed outright.” The Times pegged injuries as mere elemental byproducts, proclaiming “no game so extremely perilous should be permitted to be played.”

Camp weighed in, as supreme powerbroker of football’s maturing enterprise at American universities. Camp said daily practice sessions posed higher risk than games, but he voiced support for new rules to “remove the so-called brutalizing character” of competition.

“There is no doubt that the game as played the last year or two has been attended with a great deal of danger to the players,” Camp stated. “In improving from the old [Rugby Union] game we have admitted the interference [blocking], which is the element of danger in the game. The Englishmen look upon our style of playing with a great deal of abhorrence. Yet it is just that style that has commended the game to the American people and aroused such a great interest in it.”

Camp suggested a “convention” of football representatives from colleges could address the questions, and thus it materialized.

Newspapers soon announced “five football experts” would gather to discuss, draft, and ratify new rules. The 34-year-old Camp was named to the committee, obviously, while the others were likewise young “football men” and former players of the universities represented, Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Pennsylvania, and Wesleyan.

“The football reform movement at last begins to assume a tangible shape,” noted The Evening World, optimistically.

The anointed experts released their new rules in spring 1894, football’s first in the mission of safety for players. Among changes, a kick receiver could signal “fair catch” for avoiding contact; there would be “less use of hands and arms obstructively”; piling on a man when down would be penalized; and a “linesman” was added to field officials.

The focus of attention was Rule 30 (c.), reading as follows: “No momentum mass plays shall be allowed.” An enthusiastic news commentator said “anxious parents, friends and companions” of players could now rest easy, as if football’s dreadful “wedge” action were eliminated.

But that depended on definition and interpretation. “A momentum mass play is where more than three men start before the ball is put into play,” stated a news report. “Nor shall more than three men group for that purpose more than five yards back from the point where the ball is put in play.”

The public expected much from anti-wedge policy, yet football’s safety code produced negligible results during the 1894 season, with collisions still violent and injurious throughout. Critics howled in derision of officials.

New York Evening Post editorial ripped the incorrigible violence of college football, chiding the hypocrisy—or calculated rhetoric—of organizers and supporters who tried to label boxing the only barbaric pastime. The Post opined:

There is one characteristic of the new football which all those who promise us its reform seem to overlook, and that is that it is the only athletic sport which brings the whole bodies of the players into violent collision.

In short, is not the distinction between the ring and college football as played Saturday a distinction without a difference? Is not the attempt to make a [perceived] difference a bit of sophistry of which the champions of the game ought to be ashamed? It is true [the boxer] plays a game which consists in wasting his adversary’s strength so that he can no longer resist.

But how does this differ from college football? Is not the slugging of the enemy’s best men so as to close their eyes, strain their hips, break their noses, and concuss their brains, and thus compel them to withdraw from the field, exactly the pugilist’s policy?

Chicago Tribune editors denounced alleged gridiron reform. “The Football Slugging Match,” the newspaper headlined after Harvard versus Yale. Brutality was “the conspicuous feature of the game,” the report began.

“It was played under new rules, but the new rules were formulated not so much to make the game a test of skill, agility, and endurance as to invite personal encounters and increase the opportunities for slugging. That they worked well is shown by the list of maimed victims. Seven men were more or less severely injured.”

North of the U.S. border, The Winnipeg Tribune followed American debate over tackle football as the sport was introduced in Canada. “And the game is seriously threatened,” the newspaper editorialized, “for it is impossible to ascribe the violence of the contest to any special kind of tactics.”

“Last year the flying wedge and momentum players were made the scapegoat for all the accidents of football. The public was easily deceived… The papers are asking the university authorities what they propose to do about the matter.”

A Chicago preacher wanted impact changes, Rev. J.J. Tobias, who denounced amoral football and collegiate administrations before his Episcopal congregation. “Is football essential to manly sports? Certainly not for physical culture…,” Tobias scoffed, “for our gymnasiums and athletic clubs afford every facility.”

“[Football] is called a science…,” he continued from pulpit, mocking Walter Camp’s frequent claim, “yes, the science of disabling, wearing out, or killing by violent personal concussion of the antagonist. It is the science of brute force.”

Rev. Tobias doubted the courage of universities for standing up to the “football associations” so affluent and omnipotent on campuses nationwide, backed by exploding fan base.

“It is a lack of real moral manliness on the part of the governing powers,” he decried. “There is a mania and rivalry for large numbers on the campus rolls which makes presidents timid and under a compromising policy. It is a betrayal of a holy trust.”

“Will they be brave enough to face the howling mob, or do they shift responsibility?”

1894: Talking Points in Official Denial of Football Injuries

If health reform fell short of protecting football players, the official talk and committee meetings proved to protect the game itself. Policy-making could hardly alleviate risk and casualty for individuals, but rhetorical spin, committee posturing, and suspect cures would ensure survival of the football system.

Cultural historian Michael Oriard analyzed the politics and communication in play, a century after Walter Camp seated himself to direct young coaches and rule-makers he anointed as “experts” for reversing the bloodshed.

“Fewer than a dozen young men, all representing elite universities and relatively privileged classes, controlled the game during those crucial early years of its development,” wrote Oriard, an English professor and former player in college and the NFL, for his book analysis titled Reading Football [1994]. “The creators of American football seem to have had power but little control, as they revised the rules again and again.”

Unavoidable injuries stalked officials who were hapless to find legitimate solution.

“The chronicle of rules made, broken, amended, circumvented, amended again, abused again, in endless cycle, seems to reveal a game that developed without intention, by simple necessity after an initial accident,” Oriard concluded of the football’s first half-century, after his research of Golden Press newspapers and magazines.

“Once the scrimmage line and the five-yard rule were instituted (by young men unable to anticipate the consequences), subsequent revisions were required to guarantee them, then to modify them as they became unworkable.”

Officials’ revision of injury information also occurred, involving early incidents of brain trauma.

A rash of athlete calamities befell Yale football in 1885. Aspiring player John Arnot Palmer collapsed and died of a brain aneurysm, one day removed from football practice. Most doctors at autopsy believed “violent exercise” of the sport led to the blood vessel’s bursting, according to first news. Yale physician William O. Ayres contested their conclusion, however, dismissing football as a factor; the pathology findings instead indicated kidney disease spurred Palmer’s cerebral bleed, Ayres announced to press.

Following the death, two Yale players collided with “fearful force” at practice, injuring one. Halfback W.R. Crawford was “knocked off his feet, landing heavily on his back and head,” reported The Chicago Inter Ocean. “He was removed to his room and medical aid summoned.” Crawford lay “unconscious for about two hours,” the newspaper continued. “He is reported… as being all right.”

Yale football officials, headed by Camp, were described as “reticent about the affair.”

Camp, if never experiencing brain trauma himself in football, evidently saw the condition as a player, coach, and referee. Writing of his freshman year as Yale player, 1876, Camp recalled “stunning” an opponent with his tackle, causing momentarily unconsciousness. Thirteen years later, Camp refereed a college game in New York when a Wesleyan player was “knocked insensible” and continued competing. And numerous Yale players and opponents were publicly identified as concussion casualties during Camp’s decades at the university.

Evidence suggests Camp understood both danger of brain injury and potential ramifications for tackle football. A recorded game incident of TBI ended up omitted from his 1894 book, Football Facts and Figures, which Watterson [2002] ripped as “a resoundingly pro-football polemic” containing “a barrage of football propaganda.”

“Anyone who read Camp’s book, especially the introductory excerpts, might come away wondering what all the critical full was about. According to the ‘facts and figures’ so authoritatively interpreted, no one suffered permanent injuries, and all but a cranky handful agreed that football’s virtues outweighed its shortcomings.”

Camp had solicited input from players, and one recalled suffering brain trauma. Former Penn captain William Harvey wrote to Camp that he suffered “serious injury” during a game in 1883, when “I was knocked insensible but recovered in about fifteen minutes.”

But Harvey’s record of brain concussion was ignored for publication of the book, which would be “cited for decades as reliable evidence supporting continuation of the game through controversy and reform,” observed modern researcher Emily A. Harrison.

“Harvey’s response was included in Football Facts and Figures, but only in part,” Harrison revealed of her investigation. “On his original letter, preserved in Camp’s papers at Yale University, Harvey’s description of his head injury has been blatantly crossed out in crayon.”

No one could control football violence, but public perspective could be shaped, and a template of official rhetoric was printed in concert with Camp’s book.

Eugene Lamb Richards, Yale math professor whose sons starred in football for the university, writing for Popular Mechanics in 1894, outlined the talking points of safer football that endure today, including the following assurances:

Qualified trainers and doctors will patrol sidelines.

State-of-art medical care will treat the rare grave casualties.

Injury tracking will cut rates already in decline.

Coaches will properly train players.

Medical prescreening for every player.

Experts will research and ratify rules.

Referees will enforce rules of the experts.

Players will follow rules of the experts.

Richards’ timeless essay of football advocacy channeled further assertions of Camp:

News media exaggerate gridiron injuries.

Football teaches teamwork and courage, builds mind and body.

Football is part-and-parcel of a complete education.

Football saves urban or underprivileged boys from the streets.

Football teaches manhood to boys everywhere.

Football provides healthy catharsis for male aggression.

Serious casualties are genetically predisposed to injury, too weak in their resistance.

Not surprisingly, Richards also penned the introduction to Camp’s book.

“Walter Camp worked with fellow supporters of football to stave off critics and to create a climate of opinion favorable to the college game,” Watterson wrote.

Harrison noted: “Camp and the [rules] committee set to work saving the game through persuasive selection of evidence, technical reform, and pressure on college administrators and faculty.”

Yale football men apparently exerted campus clout at New Haven in 1894, for a football revolt over the notorious game with Harvard. The Associated Press reported anonymous members of the Yale faculty said “pugilistic brutality of the game must be stopped” and they would ensure cancellation of the university’s pending game with Princeton.

Campus football leaders immediately refuted the story, announcing Princeton remained on schedule. “Captain Hickey of Yale and his football [teammates] are back to hard practice again,” newspapers stated. “The report that was circulated, saying the Yale faculty would forbid the game with the Tigers… is denied.”

1890s: Football Brain Risks Documented in News

Camp’s description of TBI symptoms in an opponent he tackled in 1876 stands among earliest reported incidents of American football, according to texts available in electronic search. Newspapers publicized “concussion of the brain” in football stories by 1885, such as the year’s aforementioned incident at Yale, the practice collision that concussed a player.

In period lexicon, the term concussion could mean anything from cerebral dysfunction to lethal hemorrhaging. Journalists routinely attributed concussion to players who were rendered comatose or killed, but many doctors knew the condition typically presented with symptoms such as headaches, confusion, memory loss, “delirium,” and temporary unconsciousness, if any.

And medicine of the late 19th century encountered concussed football players galore. The gory spectacle achieved wide appeal for its colliding combatants, fighting headlong over a ball—“contact ballet… annihilation hanging in the balance,” Oriard wrote—constituting a fertile culture for brain impacts that likely topped horseback riding, among riskiest endeavors.

“For the idea of the modern football captain…,” intoned The San Francisco Morning Call, praising the game, “is to fling such a force upon the holder of the ball that [the ball carrier] shall be knocked down, and probably knocked senseless.”

“EIGHT PLAYERS KNOCKED SENSELESS,” blared a newspaper headline in 1891, after Purdue University defeated Wabash College, 44 to 0. During another game in Indiana, a football-playing college professor “fell on his head and was knocked senseless.”

Men and boys were “knocked senseless” in football from Manhattan Island to the Hawaiian Islands, newspapers revealed, and many more were medically diagnosed with “mild” or “slight concussion,” such as Harvard captain Bert Waters in 1893. The star guard was injured against Yale and removed from the game, then sidelined for his team’s season finale versus Pennsylvania.

A Minneapolis football crowd of 1894 witnessed a “peculiar feature” when University of Wisconsin quarterback Theron Lyman bumbled around behind center, forgetting signals and directions, beset with his repetitive brain injuries. “He did the same thing at Chicago, and it is due to a concussion of the brain some time ago,” reported The St. Paul Globe.

That season’s infamous Harvard-Yale game—with Camp serving as umpire—produced a “slight concussion” for Fred Murphy, a Yale tackle rendered unconscious for hours. Murphy returned to football practice within days and played in the next game.

Many if not most head injuries in football’s plodding scrums occurred of rips, falls, kicks, and crushes. In 1895, Central University halfback Will Lyon took a foe’s foot to his head and was transported by coach ambulance to the team hotel. “There he lost consciousness and did not regain sensibility until about 7:30 o’clock last evening,” reported the Sunday morning Louisville Courier-Journal. “It is thought he suffered slight concussion of the brain, but will be able to leave for Richmond today.”

Many doctors loved football and medical schools fielded teams nationwide. In 1896, the “football eleven” of the Chicago College of Physicians and Surgeons met Beloit College for a brawling contest in Wisconsin. The Daily Tribune described the game as “one of the wickedest in the matter of slugging that was ever played anywhere,” continuing:

The doctors outweighed Beloit and seemed to want to kill someone and do it quickly and so began slugging from the start and it was not long before the rough work was not confined to one side by any means. …

As the [scoreless] game was drawing to a close Hansell, one of the doctors, who had put up a fine game as left half-back, began to act queer and was taken off the field, when he became unconscious and lay in that condition for several hours, but is recovering now. Some think he suffered from concussion of the brain.

The Yale team doctor diagnosed at least one concussion casualty that season, halfback Hamilton F. Benjamin, who was flattened against Princeton and “kicked in the forehead,” stated a news report. Benjamin “received a contused scalp and slight concussion of the brain, injuries not necessarily serious.”

A headshot rocked a Chicago schoolboy quarterback in 1899, causing “temporary insanity,” per a report. “He raved several hours before he could be calmed. It is feared he suffered concussion of the brain.”

Medical authorities referred to a “second consciousness” for victims of brain concussion. Doctors said the injury was “frequent in football, when a player is sometimes knocked out, apparently recovers, plays out the game, and comes to himself only after a considerable period, remembering nothing in the interval,” reported The New York Times.

1900: Do Football Helmets Cause or Prevent Trauma?

By 1893 in New York City, capital of football universe, “an epidemic” of long-haired men struck a fashion statement. “On the streets, in the theatres, in cafes, and everywhere where people gather together, may be seen flowing locks adorning the heads of men of all kinds,” The Boston Post relayed. “This capillary profusion is particularly noticeable in the case of young men.”

Football players with press popularity had started the trend, although initially not for looks; they simply believed that growing hair long protected them from head injuries on the gridiron. “From the time he begins practice early in the fall until the last goal has been kicked in November, the collegiate player does not indulge in the luxury of a hair cut,” stated The New Orleans Times-Picayune. ”This hirsute matting does not add to his personal attractiveness, but it protects the player’s head from cold and injury.”

Princeton All-American quarterback Phil King drew media attention for his blonde curls’ covering ears and eyes like “a huge chrysanthemum.” King bragged to writers he could “butt a stone wall” without concern of skull fracture or brain concussion.

Hair padding aside, football already favored firmer countermeasures for protection above neckline. Harvard players wore the patented Cumnock nose mask, designed of rubber by a former team captain, and the material had been taken further by a contemporary player, Charles Mackenzie at Princeton, a talented, injured backfield mate of King.

The speedy Mackenzie was attempting a football comeback from brain trauma, after a physician sidelined him a year for “a severe blow on the head… which if repeated the doctor fears might result seriously,” newspapers reported. Mackenzie now donned “a head protector made of hard rubber and can go into the thickest of the fight without fear of any serious result.”

Other types of football “headgear” or helmets were developing too, but protection for ramming athletes remained elusive.

In 1896, for example, the University of Kansas football team added William Baine, a Sioux Indian recruited away from Haskell Institute. Baine was stocky, fast, intelligent, but at KU he suffered multiple brain injuries.

On Oct. 31, Baine was “laid out by a fierce tackle” against the Kansas City Medics, stated a news report. “After that he did not know what he was doing. The doctors said he was in a bad way and feared concussion of the brain.”

Baine’s symptoms of “slight concussion” persisted the next week, recalled the Kansas quarterback decades later, Dr. Bert Kennedy, a dentist. The KU coaches were former players at Princeton, where padded “harness” to cover head, ears, and nose had been constructed for years. Kennedy said “we fashioned a padded canvas headpiece to protect [Baine].”

“It was the first football helmet I ever saw.”

That Saturday Kansas met rival Nebraska and Baine scored his team’s first touchdown. Then KU played to hold the lead: “We were trying to stall and I called a right end run merely to get the ball in the middle of the field,” Kennedy said. “The Indian protested that his head ached and he couldn’t run. But he traveled 60 yards to a touchdown so fast the Nebraskans never laid a hand on him.”

The Kansas squad beat Nebraska but unfortunately would experience a worst-case scenario of repeated brain injuries in football—victimizing an opposing player, Bert Serf of Doane College.

Serf was trampled by a Kansas “rush line” on Nov. 14, attempting a goal-line tackle. He did not regain consciousness and died that night. “The injury was to the back of his head, and concussion of the brain doubtless caused his death,” reported The Lawrence Weekly World.

“The attending physicians are confident that [Serf] died largely from the effects of a previous injury. It is known that in a game at Tarkio, Mo., he was seriously hurt, and from that time he should have been taken off the gridiron.”

Serf apparently played without headgear despite his “similar concussions,” but Baine’s helmet could not have shielded his repetitive trauma, either.

Baine played college football almost a decade for various institutions, often as a mercenary athlete—and with a progressively “primitive temper,” observed historian Tom Benjey. Once Baine was ejected from a game for raging and throwing the football at a referee’s face.

Baine died at 29, while firing a pistol during a drunken binge in his native Fort Sisseton, S.D.; a night watchman shot him to death. “William Baine’s short, but eventful, life ended violently,” wrote Benjey [2008]. “One cannot wonder if his ‘mild concussion of the brain’ had anything to do with his end.”

A football death in 1897 refueled debate over brutality. University of Georgia player Von Gammon died of brain injury sustained in a game, incurring outrage of football critics. The Pittsburgh Daily Post opined:

A conservative medical journal, the Philadelphia “Medical Record,” makes a weighty deliverance against football. The “Record” holds that the game as now played ought not to be allowed, on the grounds that it can no longer be viewed in the light of innocent recreative amusement, with harmless and healthful athletics as its object; but that, even with “slugging” ruled out, it is “productive of the greatest variety of surgical injuries to every part of the body,” and that the effect of such injuries is life-long in a large proportion of cases.

The Georgia legislature hastily passed a bill to ban football, which the governor considered for a month before declining to sign it. The governor said his decision finalized on letter from the dead player’s mother, imploring him to keep football alive for the state.

The next year, a helmet manufacturer released a model that “completely protects the head and ears,” announced a news item. “The crown of it is made of tough sole leather, filled with air holes and lined with soft felt. It is believed that the helmet will be generally worn by members of all the big teams this year.”

But TBI continued on football fields, and coaches and doctors clearly understood the gravity of such injury, if not the biological mechanisms. And “protective” equipment only exacerbated health risks, with adoption of stiff leather helmets and metallic masks, along with hard pads for shoulders, elbows, hips and knees

“It has been charged that these things have been brought into use not so much to provide protection for the wearers as to inflict injury upon opponents, and there is a general cry that there have been more injuries and bruises this fall because of this armor than ever before,” The Fort Wayne Daily News reported in 1900, continuing:

Cameron Forbes and Ben Dibblee, Harvard’s leading coaches, say that a good headpiece gives to a man increased confidence and tends to make him strike an opponent with his head instead of his shoulder in bucking the line.

The Princeton coaches, on the other hand, favor all kinds of helmets and harness. 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.

As the 1890s brought American football’s first crisis over brutality, the turn of the century would mark “The First Concussion Crisis,” which is title of Emily A. Harrison’s ground-breaking review for American Journal of Public Health in 2014. Harrison researched the article while completing her doctorate degree in science history at Harvard.

“Contrary to popular opinion, concussions are not a recent discovery in football, and this recent upwelling is not the first coming of the concussion crisis in American sports,” Harrison cautioned. “It emerged more than a century ago, in the very first decades of football.”

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 mattchaney@fourwallspublishing.com or visit the website for more information.

  • Ira Pellman Goodell

    Damn good piece.

  • Don Brady, PhD, PsyD, NCSP

    Matt,

    Enjoyed reading the historical concussion / brain injury content you have presented via your introduction and look forward to reading the entire series of articles.

    At the same time, the initial extensive and revealing historical content is quite disturbing and unsettling. If you as an individual are capable of uncovering these historical and significant overlapping and adverse brain injury effects tied to football, it seems that numerous football concussion notables and legal representatives who possess vast financial and personnel resources should have also been able to easily uncover these litany of football concussion injury facts.

    Furthermore, you spotlight documented evidence (aka evidence based research) of the early Conflicts of Interests (COIs) that emerged within football via the earlier collective efforts of sanitizing, minimizing and denying of brain injuries that were occurring on a regular basis within the developmental years of football.

    Finally, the substance of your writings serve to support a rationale for why the diffuse neuropsychological effects of concussions / brain injuries continue to be minimized or trivialized by some so-called concussion experts.

    In addition, if you add R. W. Evan’s, MD (Neurologist) various writings on concussions that include, but are not limited to:

    1- Evans, R.W. (1987). Postconcussive syndrome: An overview. Texas Medicine, 83, 49-53.

    2- Evans, R.W. (1994). The postconcussive syndrome: 130 years of controversy. Seminars in Neurology, 14, 32-39

    the notion of the seriousness of any type of concussion / brain injury becomes further well documented over the past several centuries …yet this bountiful evidence is simultaneously woefully ignored by many so-called concussion experts.

    If you also add to the mix, some of my historical information outlined within my 2004 Dissertation entitled “A Preliminary Investigation of Active and Retired NFL Players’ Knowledge of Concussions” along with historical concussion / brain injury information that I submitted to Judge Brody during October 2014 via Objections to the Proposed NFL Concussion Settlement …the history of the yet often trivalized seriousness of concussions clearly permeates the history of football.
    Kind regards,

    Don Brady, PhD, PsyD, NCSP
    Licensed Clinical Psychologist
    Nationally & N Y State Certified School Psychologist

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