On the Origins of Sports: The Early Rules of Football


Excerpted from On the Origins of Sports by Gary Belsky and Neil Fine (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2016. Illustrations by Sarah Rutherford.

Our passion for sports has started wars, emptied treasuries, ended marriages, and set cities aflame. What does this say about us and how did we get here?

For the first time, the original rules of the world’s most popular sports are identified and collected in a single volume, along with the story of how those dictates came to be, and how the playing of these games has changed over decades or centuries. In anticipation of Super Bowl 50, we take an early look at the original rules of football, excerpted from Gary Belsky and Neil Fine’s On the Origins of Sports, which will be published April 19.

American football, like other emerging sports of the time, wasn’t played the same way everywhere and would likely have faded into history without a set of mutually agreed upon rules. Fittingly for a country fond of the “Great Man” theory of history, there was an American with the singular vision and force of will to forge a viable game on the gridiron. Walter Camp, widely considered to be the father of American football, was an accomplished player and coach at Yale. His first game changer was the introduction of the line of scrimmage, which he revealed at a rules conference in 1880. At rules conventions through the years, Camp continued to push for his vision of football, by creating downs, the scoring system, the center snap, and the safety, as well as instigating many fundamental strategies.

Despite Camp’s innovations, football remained notably unsafe. Mass momentum was still employed by most teams, and players risked serious injury on virtually every play. In 1905 nineteen students were killed playing college football, and there were widespread calls for the game to be banned. But many powerful forces, including President Theodore Roosevelt, were vocal advocates of football, and they didn’t want to see it disappear. Roosevelt convened the heads of several major colleges (in what led to the creation of what we now know as the National Collegiate Athletic Association) and instructed them to devise rules to enhance player safety. A committee, headed by Walter Camp, was delegated the task of reform.

Yes, more than a quarter century after he first began to refine football, Camp was still at it. This time around, the sport finally took flight, literally: in Spalding’s Official Foot Ball Guide for 1906, advocates of the forward pass—long ridiculed as a quasi-legal trick play—finally won the day. As Spalding trumpeted on its cover, “The New Rules” were edited by Walter Camp, and they included a toe-dip into the waters of passing. That autumn witnessed the birth of modern American football.

“Official Foot Ball Rules 1906”

Field, Equipment, Players, Officials, Etc.

Rule 1

(a) The game shall be played upon a rectangular field, 330 feet in length and 160 feet in width,1 enclosed by heavy white lines marked in lime2 upon the ground. The lines at the two ends shall be termed “goal lines.” Those on the two sides shall be termed “side lines” and shall be considered to extend beyond their points of intersection with the goal lines.

The field shall be marked off at intervals of 5 yards with white lines parallel to the goal lines, and also at intervals of 5 yards with white lines parallel to the side lines.3

The goal shall be placed in the middle of each goal line, and shall consist of two upright posts exceeding 20 feet in height4 and placed 18 feet 6 inches apart, with horizontal cross-bar 10 feet from the ground.

(b) The foot ball used shall be of leather, enclosing an inflated rubber bladder. The ball shall have the shape of a prolate spheroid.

(c) The game shall be played by two teams of eleven men each.

(d) A player may be substituted for another at any time. In such a case the substitute must go directly to the Referee and report himself before engaging in play. A player who has been replaced by a substitute may not return to further participation in the game.5

(e) No player having projecting nails or iron plates on his shoes or any projecting metallic or hard substance on his person shall be allowed to play in a match. If head protectors are worn, no sole leather, papier-mâché,6 or other hard or unyielding material shall be used in their construction, and all other devices for protectors must be so arranged and padded as, in the judgment of the umpire, to be without danger to other players. Leather cleats upon the shoes shall be allowed as heretofore. 

(f) The officials of the game shall be a Referee, two Umpires and a Linesman.

Rule 2

(a) The length of the game shall be 60 minutes, divided into two halves of 30 minutes each,8 exclusive of time taken out. There shall be ten minutes intermission between the two halves. 

(b) Whenever the commencement of a game is so late that in the opinion of the Referee, there is any likelihood of the game being interfered with by darkness,9 he shall, before play begins, arbitrarily shorten the two halves to such length as shall insure two equal halves being completed, and shall notify both captains of the exact time thus set. Either side refusing to abide by the opinion of the Referee on this point shall forfeit the game.

Rule 3

The game shall be decided by the final score at the end of the two halves. The following shall be the value of plays in scoring:

Touchdown, 5 points.

Goal from touchdown, 1 point.

Goal from the field, 4 points.

Safety by opponents, 2 points.

Rule 4

Methods of Kicking the Ball

(a) A Place-kick is made by kicking the ball after it has been placed on the ground.13

(b) A Kick-off is a place-kick from the center of the field of play. A kick-off cannot score a goal. (Rule 7.)

(c) A Punt is made by dropping the ball from the hands and kicking it before it touches the ground.

(d) A Punt-out  is a punt made by a player of the side which has made a touchdown to another of his own side for a fair catch. (Rule 21, c.)

(e) A Drop-kick is made by dropping the ball from the hands and kicking it the instant it rises from the ground.14

(f) A Kick-out is a drop-kick, place-kick or punt made by a player of the side which has made a safety or a touchback.15 

(g) A Free-kick is a term used to designate any kick when the opponents are restrained by rule from advancing beyond a certain point before the ball is put in play. 

Rule 5

Definition of Terms.

(a) The “Field of Play,” as technically termed in these rules, is the rectangular space bounded by the goal lines and the side lines.

(b) A Scrimmage takes place when the holder of the ball places it flat upon the ground, with its long axis at right angles to the line of scrimmage, and puts it in play by kicking it forward or snapping it back.

(1) The scrimmage does not end until the ball is again declared dead.

(2) The ball is always put in play from a scrimmage, except in cases where other specific provision is made.

(c) The Line of Scrimmage for each side is an imaginary line parallel to the goal line and passing through that point of the ball nearest the side’s own goal line.

(d) A Fair Catch consists in catching the ball after it has been kicked by one of the opponents and before it touches the ground, or in similarly catching a “punt-out” by another of the catcher’s own side, provided the player while advancing toward the ball signals his intention of making a fair catch by raising his hand clearly above his head and takes not more than two steps after making the catch.

(1) The mark of the catch shall be the spot at which the ball is actually caught, and in case the catcher advances within his lawful limit after the catch, the ball shall be brought back to the mark.

(2) It is not a fair catch if the ball, after the kick, was touched by another of a player’s side before the catch. Opponents who are off-side shall not in any way interfere with a player who has an opportunity for making a fair catch; nor shall a player be thrown to the ground after he has made such catch.

(3) If a side thus obtains a fair catch the ball may be put in play by a punt, drop-kick, place-kick, or scrimmage. If the ball is put in play by a kick, the opponents may not come within 10 yards of the spot on which the fair catch was made; and the ball must be kicked from some point directly behind the spot where the catch was made, on a line parallel to the side line.

(e) A Down occurs when the Referee blows his whistle or declares the ball dead. The Referee shall blow his whistle or declare the ball dead: (1) When a player having the ball cries “Down”; (2) When any portion of his person, except his hands or feet, touches the ground while he is in the grasp of an opponent; (3) When he goes out of bounds; or, (4) Whenever he is so held that his forward progress has been stopped; (5) When, on a forward pass, the ball, after being passed forward, touches the ground before being touched by a player of either side; (6) When, on a forward pass, the ball, after being passed forward, crosses the goal line without touching a player of either side; (7) When a kicked ball (except a kick-off or free-kick) strikes inside the field of play and then rolls over the goal line before being touched by a player of either side.

(f) A Touchdown is made when the ball lawfully in possession of a player is declared dead by the Referee, any part of it being on, above or behind the opponent’s goal line.

(g) A Touchback is made when the ball in possession of a player guarding his own goal is declared dead by the Referee, any part of it being on, above or behind the goal line, provided the impetus which sent it to or across the line was given by an opponent. The referee shall declare the ball dead behind the goal line just as if it were on the field of play.

(h) A Safety is made when the ball in the possession of a player guarding his own goal is declared dead by the Referee, any part of it being on, above or behind the goal line, provided the impetus which sent it to or across the line was given by the side defending the goal. Such impetus could come: (1) From a kick, pass, snap-back or fumble by one of the player’s own side; (2) From a kick which bounded back from an opponent; (3) In case a player carrying the ball is forced back, provided the ball was not declared dead by the Referee before the line was reached or crossed.

A safety is also made when a player of the side in possession of the ball commits a foul which would give the ball to the opponents behind the offender’s goal line; also when the ball, kicked by a man behind his goal line, crosses the extended portion of either side line.

(i) A Goal from Touchdown is made by a place-kick direct, or a place-kick preceded by a punt-out.

(j) A Goal from the Field is made by kicking the ball from the field of play over the cross-bar of the opponents’ goal in any way except by a punt or a kick-off.

(k) A Foul is a violation of any rule.

(l) The ball is Out of Bounds when either the ball or any part of a player who holds it touches the ground on or outside the side line or side line extended.

(m) A player trips another when he obstructs below the knee, with that part of his leg that is below the knee.

(n) Hurdling in the open is jumping over or attempting to jump over an opponent who is still on his feet. Hurdling in the line is jumping over, or attempting to jump over, a player on the line of scrimmage, with the feet or knees foremost, within the distance of 5 yards on either side of the point where the ball was put in play. 

Excerpted from On the Origins of Sports by Gary Belsky and Neil Fine (Artisan Books). Available from Amazon, BN.com, and Indiebound. Copyright © 2016. Illustrations by Sarah Rutherford.