The Blog

How Theodore Roosevelt Changed Football

1:52 PM, Sep 13, 2011 • By DANIEL HALPER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Fred Barnes reviews John J. Miller's The Big Scrum in the Wall Street Journal:

In 1905, Theodore Roosevelt took an unusual step for a president. He tried to reform the way college football was played, and he succeeded. The game became more civilized, less bone-crushingly violent, and much more open, thanks to new rules that included allowing the forward pass.

The future of the game had been thrown in doubt the previous season when 18 players died from injuries on the field. It was a brutal sport back then: Players showed little concern for their own safety, even less for their opponents'. They threw punches, jammed their fingers into rivals' eyes, drove their knees into players on the ground. They ignored calls for a fair catch. As Harvard players were urged before a game against Yale in 1894: "Tackle them anyway and take the penalty." For years, the flying wedge was used to steamroll over defenders, causing injuries. "Every day one hears of broken heads, fractured skulls, broken necks, wrenched legs, disclosed shoulders, broken noses, and many other accidents," the New York Times wrote after the 1893 season.

At the same time, college football was rapidly gaining popularity: Harvard, a powerhouse at the time, built a new stadium, seating 22,000, in 1903 to accommodate swelling attendance. But the mortality rate and mayhem on the field were such that President Roosevelt threatened to outlaw college football if it didn't reform itself.

In "The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football," John J. Miller doesn't insist that TR's role is as singular as the title suggests. He says it's "possible to believe" that football would have vanished as a big-time sport without presidential intervention. Possible, yes, but difficult. Yet it's indisputable that Roosevelt was instrumental in taming and improving the game. Had he not acted, football would surely be a different and far less popular sport than the one that attracts tens of millions of fans today.

Whole thing here.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 19 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers