By: Ronnie Kadykowski
The violence and physicality of football remain hot-button issues surrounding the sport today. Yet, as John Miller explains in his book, “The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football”, football is far safer today than the sport used to be when it was first created in the late 19th century.
“Teddy Roosevelt saved football by instituting the forward pass,” Miller explained.
“Football was an incredibly brutal and violent sport in the late nineteenth century, but also tremendously popular. As it was becoming more and more popular, a growing number of people became more concerned with its violence and noticing, for example, that in the year 1905, 18 people died playing football,” Miller said.
“They would say, ‘enough is enough. This is gladiatorial combat in the Roman amphitheatre and there is no place for that in modern American life.’ So, an abolition movement rose up trying to ban or outlaw football. They wanted to get rid of it entirely.”
That’s where Teddy Roosevelt and others stepped in to prevent football from being dismantled. They felt the sport had its flaws, but also saw the intrinsic value the sport offered to spectators, players, and especially young men.
“[Roosevelt and others] recognized that football had a problem with violence but they thought the solution was to try and find a way for football to survive rather than get rid of it entirely,” Miller said.
“Eventually, Roosevelt, when he was president, summoned the coaches to the White House from Yale, Harvard, and Princeton, the three most important football programs of the time. He said [to the coaches], ‘football is on trial and you guys should find a way to preserve it.’
“That winter, a new rules committee formed, passed a bunch of sweeping rules changes to the game, the most important of which was the forward pass. They did this with the support of Roosevelt and as a result, the violence of football declined. It did not go away entirely and it took them a few years to work out the kinks, but within about seven or eight years the sport had transformed. It moved from a version of rugby in which there were quarterbacks but no wide receivers and no forward passes into the modern American sport that we know and love today.”
The addition of the forward pass helped to “open up” the game of football. By allowing more space, speed became a bigger factor in the game and collisions amongst players became isolated to a few players at a time, rather than all 22 men converging on each other at once.
“Prior to [the forward pass], football was compressed into a small part of the field. Every play was a clash of large men throwing themselves at each other again and again and again trying to move the ball four feet.
“Allowing the forward pass, you suddenly had wide receivers and your spreading play across a larger area of the field and speed started to matter more. It’s not that it didn’t matter previously, but it suddenly started to matter even more.
“Although football remained a rough sport, as they often called it back in the day, the fatalities just began to decrease. There have always been injuries and so forth, but as a result of the forward pass, football fixed its problem of grievous injury.”
Despite the early 20th century overhaul of football, it continues to be a violent sport today that has its fair share of serious injuries, especially concussions and other head and neck injuries. But, as Miller explains, football is far safer today than it was and while he may not be a football man himself, he sees the current debate on concussions as having many positives for the future of the sport.
“I’m not a football man in the sense that I never really played for a team or anything,” Miller said, “[so] I’m always reluctant to come in and say that this is what football must do. I think a lot of serious football people are looking at [the concussion] problem right now. One very positive effect of this whole debate is that awareness of concussions has increased so teams are starting to take it a lot more seriously at every level, right down to youth leagues.
“We should care about the health of our athletes, so it is good that there is some focus on this right now. Having said that, the problems football faces today with concussions and head injuries has nothing on the problems that Roosevelt and his contemporaries were dealing with a century ago. As I said, in 1905, 18 people died from playing football and this was everything from big time college football, there were no pros then, all the way down to the sandlot.
“Today, you do hear about death in football, but they’re more like freak accidents as opposed to the collateral damage of a violent sport. The magnitude of the problem is completely different, especially when you consider how popular football was back then, it’s incredibly popular now. You’re dealing with a lot more people playing now, millions of people, and the deaths are lower. Football has a problem right now, but the magnitude of the problem is completely different.”
At the end of the day, what does Miller hope readers of his book can understand about the evolution of football?
“Football will never be a risk free activity. It cannot be a risk free activity. As soon as you try and make it that, it will no longer be football. We need to recognize that,” Miller emphasized.
“On top of that, rough sports like football are critically important in the development of young people, particularly in turning boys into men. And this is what Roosevelt thought too.
“He thought rough sports, and football more than any other, taught lessons that you couldn’t learn from a book or in a classroom. Taught you things like, when you get knocked down you have to get back up. How to work with teammates. How to deal with defeat. How to deal with victory. It teaches all kinds of lessons that you can’t learn any other way, or at least not nearly as well. Sports are really important in the formation of kids.”