When Teddy Roosevelt Turned American Football On Its Head

By Nolan Moore on Monday, December 14, 2015
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“To borrow a simile from the football field, we believe that men must play fair, but that there must be no shirking, and that the success can only come to the player who hits the line hard.” —Theodore Roosevelt

In a Nutshell

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, American football was an incredibly popular sport—and it was incredibly brutal. A shocking amount of players were dying from game-related injuries. So in 1905, President Teddy Roosevelt called a football summit at the White House in order to save the game from extinction.

The Whole Bushel

Football has drawn a lot of criticism in recent years. After all, it’s a pretty brutal game. But the current version we see on TV is downright tame compared to how people played back in the day. In the early 1900s, college kids played without any protective gear, passing wasn’t part of the sport yet, and blocking was a no-no. That meant there was a whole lot of heavy hitting and quite a few pileups that devolved into straight-up slug fests.

Tragically, a lot of people died during those early days. In 1905, 18 college players died due to game-related injuries, and that’s not mentioning the 159 injuries. Understandably, quite a few people were disturbed by all this bloodshed. Columbia, Duke, and Northwestern Universities shut down their football programs, which was a huge deal because in the days before the NFL, college football was the highest level of play. Harvard president Charles Eliot did his best to ban the game, Secretary of War William Howard Taft forbade West Point cadets from playing, and The New York Times actually compared the sport to lynching.

And that’s when Teddy Roosevelt showed up. The president was a major football fan, but he knew the game needed to change, especially after his own son was badly injured on the playing field. So in 1905, Roosevelt summoned coaches and officials from schools like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton to the White House, along with Secretary of State Elihu Root. “Football is on trial,” Roosevelt explained during the football summit. “Because I believe in the game, I want to do all I can to save it.”

Roosevelt encouraged the athletic directors and school officials to come up with a set of rules to make football a safer game. For example, they legalized the forward pass. Now you could actually hurl the ball down the field, forcing the players to spread out. They created a neutral zone between the lines of scrimmage (that gap between the offensive and defensive teams before they hike the ball). They created an actual penalty system, and now you needed 10 yards for a first down (instead of 5), giving players a reason “to run outside the tackles.”

Helmets wouldn’t become mandatory until 1939, but the new rules definitely affected the game. If nothing else, the football summit was a major PR coup, winning over the public and keeping the critics at bay. So next time you kick back and watch a little football, thank the 26th president.

Show Me The Proof

Featured photo via Wikipedia
Smithsonian: Score One for Roosevelt
CNN: The president who saved football
Deadspin: Did Football Cause 20 Deaths In 1905? Re-Investigating A Serial Killer
Washington Post: How Teddy Roosevelt helped save football