“Watching sports like football is the closest the average man comes to the contemplation of eternal things. The game is one of the only places left where we still find cheating to be cheating. We find glory in what is earned. We find corruption and repentance, honor, competence, vanity, and genuine humility.” – Father James V. Schall (1928-2019)
Father Schall, a prominent Catholic philosopher from Georgetown University, died earlier this year at the age of ninety-one. At the time of Schall’s birth, American football was nearing the end of its childhood. In the 1930s, football would begin to emerge as one of this country’s most popular sports.
Even so, the rise and eventual success of football on the national stage was not a foregone conclusion during the early twentieth century. Indeed, shortly after that century’s turn, the sport had a near-death experience. It is that moment, and Theodore Roosevelt’s role in rescuing the sport from oblivion, that John J. Miller writes of in The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football. In addition, Miller weaves a fascinating story of the origins of American football, charting its beginnings from a rugby-style game played at northeastern universities through its steady transformation into the thrilling coast-to-coast contest of strategy, dynamism, and brute strength we know today.
What brought football to the brink of banishment was the simple unsettling fact that it was—and still is—a violent game. Helmets and shoulder pads are not worn for decoration. More than a century ago, they were not even a regular feature of the sport. Hence, many players suffered debilitating, life-threatening, and life-ending injuries. In 1905, when what sports historians call the Gridiron Crisis occurred, the sport (at both the professional and college levels) cost eighteen players their lives. This led one critic to describe the game as “a social obsession—this boy-killing, man-mutilating, education-prostituting, gladiatorial sport.” In response, a number of prominent men advocated banning football outright, among them Charles W. Eliot (the president of Harvard University), renowned historian Frederick Jackson Turner, and even General John Singleton Mosby, who had served under Robert E. Lee during the Civil War. A New York Times editorial asserted the level of violence and mayhem in football was as much of a crisis as the lynching of blacks in the post-Reconstruction South.
President Roosevelt refused to join in the anti-football hysteria, but he realized that if the sport was to have a future, it would need to adapt to the contemporary zeitgeist. Thus, he decided to convene a summit at the White House to address the issue on October 9, 1905. The invitees to the football summit included Yale head football coach Walter Camp (the “Father of American Football”) and additional coaches from the Harvard and Princeton football programs. Also invited were Robert Bacon (then serving as Assistant Secretary of State), federal judge and former Democratic senator George Gray (who could not attend), and then-Secretary of State Elihu Root.
Roosevelt opened the meeting with the following statement: “Football is on trial. Because I believe in the game, I want to do all I can to save it. And so I have called you all down here to see whether you won’t all agree to abide by both the letter and spirit of the rules, for that will help.” A number of innovations were suggested. Walter Camp lobbied for increasing the number of yards needed for a first down from five to ten. Another proposal brought forth was a controversial innovation long supported by Georgia Tech head coach John Heisman: the forward pass. In the days after the summit, the following official statement was released:
At a meeting with the President of the United States it was agreed that we consider an honorable obligation existed 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 pledge themselves to so regard it and to do their utmost to carry out these obligations.
A vague statement to be sure, but one that pledged the attendees to commit themselves to abiding by the principles of fair play and a mutually agreed-upon set of rules. Indeed, in the coming years the proposals of ten yards for a first down and the legalization of the forward pass were adopted, transforming the game significantly and positively.
It should be no surprise that Roosevelt lent his considerable influence toward the preservation and improvement of American football. Miller quotes an article written by Roosevelt in 1893 and published in Harper’s Weekly wherein he advocated the virile virtues of competitive sports, particularly those “sports which call for the greatest exercise of fine moral qualities such as resolution, courage, endurance, and capacity to hold one’s own and stand up under punishment.” Roosevelt continued: “The true sports for a manly race are sports like running, rowing, playing football and baseball, boxing, and wrestling, shooting, riding, and mountain climbing. Of all these sports there is no better sport than football.”
Roosevelt’s sentiment was one that took root not only in the rarified air of the Ivy League and official Washington, but throughout American society in the years and decades that followed. Indeed, one place where football flourished was at a small Catholic college in South Bend, Indiana named Notre Dame, an institution whose football team became a cultural phenomenon:
In summary, Miller’s book stands as a fine chronicle of the origins of American football, explaining how the sport rose to become not only a thrilling contest of physical bravery and derring-do, but a reflection and symbol of the values that made America great, and can make America great again.