Football From Teddy To Trump
As the twentieth century in America sprang forth, so too did the nation’s obsession with sports. A brief fifty-four years before 1900, professional baseball was born. It was at the ethereally-named Elysian Field in Hoboken, New Jersey where the New York Baseball Club defeated the Knickerbockers 23-1. Twenty-three years later, in 1869, the first formal football game took place between Princeton’s Tigers and Rutgers’ Scarlet Knights. Again, this time in nearby New Brunswick—about an hour away from Hoboken—the garden state sowed the country’s second sport.
Both football and baseball thus spawned (from Anglican ancestors, no less, much as we), they rooted and flourished in a country eager for competition and for the glories of victories. They changed the cultural conversation in America almost immediately. Attendance at their contests swelled and their outcomes dominated workaday small talk. The games, be they professional or collegial, were to become something more than a mere pastime; they became a changing society’s passion.
No sooner did this new century and these new sports breathe their first breath, when the Galveston Hurricane struck Texas’s gulf coast. This eerily relevant event, in light of the recent and deadly hurricane’s to have struck Texas, Florida, and then Puerto Rico, claimed the lives of over eight thousand people. One year later, in 1901, the deranged anarchist Leon Czolgosz shot President McKinley. The nation held out hope for the languishing president, but the doughty McKinley proved no match for his wounds.
Shaken by the stinging realization that nearly ten thousand countrymen had just died and a third sitting president had been killed in too few years, Americans sought stability. As never it does when needed most, it wasn’t to come any time soon. The nation was shaken further still, and rather literally, when on an early April morning in 1906, the Earth’s plates danced beneath San Francisco. The seismic event resulted in an earthquake that to this day remains the nation’s worst; three thousand died in the jaws of the quake. And with an explosion at a West Virginian coal mine eight months later, the first decade of this new century saw tens of thousands of Americans die by natural and accidental and homicidal ways. These devastating events occurred, we know well, just over a decade before America’s entrance into World War I. There, in the fields of France alongside the Triple Entente, incalculable casualties awaited.
Needless to say, baseball and football—our unique and emerging sports—were welcome distractions for many Americans during these years. Football, the newer of the two, enjoyed immense popularity in the college circuit, with most of the preeminent northeastern schools outfitting teams. The game, though, was very different then from what it is now; in the 1900’s, football was a veritably barbarous affair. In those days, American football was the rambunctious child of a virile marriage between rugby, soccer, and wrestling, in whose crib there was fostered little decorum. The British refer lovingly to their rugby as a hooligan’s game played by gentlemen, and their soccer as the very opposite. In making the sport their own, Americans seemed to have omitted all things gentlemanly that redeemed the other two.
Just how ungentlemanly was it? In the year 1905, eighteen young men died while playing this primordial style of football. The frequent post-mortems reported death caused by internal hemorrhage, head trauma, and broken spines. The game hadn’t yet introduced the forward pass (this was to come in 1907, when Pop Warner’s Carlisle Indians invented the airborne assault that would leave opponents flat-footed in awe—and, as a consequence, in defeat). Instead, players would scrummage, kick, and claw, and would deliberately assault an opponent’s top player if only to gain a slight advantage.
A tipping point occurred when a Union University player died of a cerebral hemorrhage on the field, combining in one horribly premature death two of the three pathologies described above. The young Union University man was attempting to tackle a Columbia University ball-carrier. He was mangled in the process and breathed his last right there on the field. Understandably aghast at having lost a young man, both schools decided it best to shutter their football programs. Thinking this to be a prudent move, Duke and Northwestern Universities followed suit. Others threatened to do the same.
It was at this point that President Theodore Roosevelt stepped into the mix. Roosevelt, the famously strenuous soldier-turned-politician was—not unlike most men in his day—enthralled by the sport. He lauded football as being “the greatest exercise of fine moral qualities”, of which he listed things like “resolution, courage, endurance, and capacity to hold one’s own and stand up under punishment”. The Rough Rider liked “rough, manly sports” and he didn’t “feel any sympathy for the person who gets battered about a good deal—so long as it is not fatal”. He said this to a crowd in 1903, two years before the sport claimed its eighteen deaths. Teddy would now be made to face the one condition he made explicit—the condition of fatality.
Surely, he was disconcerted by the sport’s death toll and by the thought of losing so many blue-blooded young men, but it wasn’t until his own son, Theodore Roosevelt Jr., sustained a gruesome injury that the president decided to act. Theodore Jr. was playing for his father’s alma mater at Harvard University when he sustained a gnarly cut above the eye. The gash occurred only during a practice, but the sanguinary event caused in the president and doting father quite a stir. What’s more, Theodore Jr. later broke his nose during a freshman game against arch-rival Yale University.
For what it’s worth, it might be noted here that Theodore Jr. was by no means a frail and effete politician’s son. Later in life, the young Roosevelt served as the Assistant Secretary of the Navy (a role his father once held), Governor of Puerto Rico and of the Philippines (again, a role his father held before, only as Governor of New York in his time), and an infantry commander during the invasion of Normandy at Utah Beach during World War II. As an aside, all of President Roosevelt’s four sons served in the wars: one was wounded, two died (Kermit committed suicide and Quentin, a pilot, was shot down), but ironically, Theodore Jr. emerged from his assignments unscathed. The son who was so frequently injured by sport made it through the storming of France in one piece. However, he wasn’t to make it back stateside; Theodore Jr., aged fifty-seven, died of a heart attack one month after the invasion.
But enough was enough. President Roosevelt would no longer sit idly by while his son, and his nation’s sons, continued maiming one another on the gridiron. He decided to meet with the presidents of Harvard, Princeton, and Yale in 1905 to address the issue and chart a course forward. Teddy sought to “reduce the element of brutality” in the game, which—upon reflection—seems not to be asking for too much. Because the gathered universities were private institutions, President Roosevelt couldn’t coerce them to change. At the very least, though, he raised this important issue to the powers at be and forced the nation to take notice.
Acting in part on President Roosevelt’s plea, the university directors decided to make a change. In the following years, no less than sixty university presidents gathered to decide on the game’s future. They ultimately agreed upon the establishment of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, or NCAA, in 1910. Thus implemented, the NCAA was able to regulate play and make football much safer than it had ever been before.
We now fast-forward to the present day. Much like it did in 1905, football again finds itself in a crisis. And as before, it’s a predominant talking point in the sport-loving public’s mind. Concussions, and their consequent CTE (or, chronic traumatic encephalopathy), are imperiling not only the players, but the game itself. Evidence linking the sport and the chronic, often-fatal condition is irrefutable. The NFL, first as a business and secondly as a group stakeholders concerned with matters of player health and welfare, have dallied but can no longer deny that this is the truth.
In their own ways, the past and current presidents, just like Theodore Roosevelt before them, have addressed this formidable question facing football today. President Obama, in 2014, hosted a “Youth Concussion Summit” to raise awareness about the issue. Whether or not it was efficacious is tough to gauge. The summit earmarked a shared $30 million investment from the Department of Defense and NCAA to conduct a comprehensive clinical study of concussions in sports. The NFL also pledged an extra $25 million to the cause.
President Trump seems less keen to explore the issue. At his speech in Alabama two weeks ago, he lamented the days of yore when the game was more brutal than currently it is. He recounted watching two players making a “beautiful tackle” and then, “boom…fifteen yards”, as if to say they were penalized for their fine hit. He said that those trying to temper the tough, highlight-reel hits are “ruining the game”. The players “want to hit” after all, but penalizing them for doing so is “ruining the game”.
Although one might prefer Trump be more forward-thinking on the issue, like President Roosevelt in his time and Obama in his, it isn’t all that surprising that he feels as he does. These are the words of a seventy-year old football fan remembering fondly the game with which he fell in love many years ago. He longs for the Dick LeBeau’s and the Ronnie Lott’s who made high-impact collisions seem quotidian. I daresay any man from his generation might long for and hence say the same thing. He is the president, though, and his sentiments—no matter how widely shared amongst his fellow septuagenarians—carry added import. He’d only be helping the cause, as Roosevelt was pushed to do over one hundred years ago, if he were in some way able to reframe his thought—and maybe save the minds of these players.