The Time Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football

Library of Congress
Library of Congress / Library of Congress

by Greg Volk

After 18 players died on the field, the president decided it was time to change the game.

During the late 1870s, American “foot ball” resembled a combination of soccer and rugby with a riot mob mentality. Almost anything went: Players could carry the ball, kick it, or pass it backward. Starting in 1880, Walter Camp, a Yale player now known as the father of American football, introduced a series of changes to make the game more strategic. Unfortunately, some ended up making the game more dangerous. The most infamous example was Harvard’s “Flying Wedge,” inspired by Napoleonic war tactics: Offensive players assumed a V-shaped formation behind the line of scrimmage, then converged en masse on a single defensive lineman. “Think of it—half a ton of bone and muscle coming into collision with a man weighing 160 or 170 pounds,” wrote The New York Times in 1892.

Within a few years, the Wedge was abolished, but the introduction of nose guards and flimsy leather helmets—both of which were optional—created illusions of safety that encouraged even more violent plays. The crowds ate it up—by the early 1890s, 40,000 fans attended the biggest games. But criticism, too, was growing. Charles Eliot, president of Harvard, became the unofficial leader of the anti-football movement. By 1895, he was calling for an outright ban.

Football did have one towering supporter on its side, though: Teddy Roosevelt, a Harvard grad whom Eliot had once called “feeble.” Roosevelt espoused “muscular Christianity,” a belief that the path to a stronger spirit was a stronger body. Though he never played the game, partially due to his reliance on glasses, Roosevelt was a devoted fan.

In 1905, before the season began, McClure’s Magazine published a scathing, scandal-packed exposé: allegations of paid recruits, players who weren’t students lining up on the field, and the organized takeout of a black player during a game. One university official called it a “boy-killing, man-mutilating, money-making, education-prostituting, gladiatorial sport.” And he was right: The 1905 season turned into what the Chicago Tribune labeled a “death harvest.” Eighteen players died. Another 137 were seriously injured. Roosevelt’s son, Teddy Roosevelt Jr., broke his nose in the Harvard-Yale junior varsity game. Universities across the country, from Columbia to Stanford, started banning the sport. It looked as though football was doomed.

New Rules

Then Roosevelt stepped in. On October 9, the president summoned some of the game’s most powerful figures, including Walter Camp and John E. Owsley of Yale, Princeton’s Arthur Hillebrand, and Harvard’s William T. Reid for a closed-door meeting at the White House. “Football is on trial,” he declared. Then he tasked the decision makers with changing the sport to keep it alive. After several heated rounds of meetings, in early 1906 the committee announced new rules: First downs now required 10 yards instead of five, what ultimately became a one-yard neutral zone between teams was mandated at the line of scrimmage, and yardage penalties for unsportsmanlike conduct were instituted. But the most impactful change—ironically, one that Camp himself vehemently opposed—was the introduction of the forward pass, a mainstay of modern football.

Fans embraced the changes, if mainly because they stopped the game from getting banned. And though football remained dangerous, the group succeeded in creating a version that drastically reduced fatalities and serious injuries for the 1906 season. In the end, Roosevelt’s play turned football into the most popular sport in the United States. And the men who met in the White House? They became the NCAA.

This story originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. Now go download our new iPad app! Or get a free issue of mental_floss magazine via mail.