Football is part of our national fabric. It means tailgating, Uncle Roy’s annoying game commentary, and an excuse to watch television for ten hours straight every weekend. Football is not “just” a sport – it’s a dream. It has changed lives and inspired success in monumental ways. It has created bonds, even unexpected ones (such as the friendship between former Alabama quarterback A. J. McCarron and young fan).

But even football has its shadows. The sport is a violent one, to the simultaneous joy and horror of players and fans alike. Football’s dangers have loomed over the sport for over one hundred years, but they have not destroyed it. From the 1880s to the 1920s, college football struggled to balance its meteoric rise with its growing brutality. Today, both college and professional football are facing this challenge again. Modern concerns over concussions and long-term effects of a career on the field are becoming more severe and apparent. Is this issue the start of football’s demise? To understand today’s issues, we needed to understand the first turning point in the history of our nation’s favorite sport.

Thomas McClung and William "Pudge" Heffelfinger posing on fence in football uniforms. McClung captained the 1891 football team which had a 13-0 record and outscored its opponents 488-0. Yale athletics photographs, ca. 1850-2007 (inclusive). Yale University.
Thomas McClung and William “Pudge” Heffelfinger posing on fence in football uniforms. McClung captained the 1891 football team which had a 13-0 record and outscored its opponents 488-0.

The Origins of American Football

Violence has always made American football distinct from other sports. In the nineteenth century, college students combined rules of soccer and rugby. The resulting game was a new form of hazing, an acceptable way for older students to demonstrate power over younger ones. The first official “football” game was in 1869 between Princeton and Rutgers, but it was played by English Rugby Union rules.

As football gained prominence across universities, Princeton, Harvard, Yale, and Columbia convened to define some universal rules-based guidelines. The newly formed Intercollegiate Football Association created the first official football rules in 1876. Out of sixty-one original rules, only two dealt with the safety of players.

  • 57. No hacking or hacking over or tripping up shall be allowed under any circumstances.
  • 58. No one wearing projecting nails, iron plates, or gutta percha on any parts of his boots or shoes shall be allowed to play in a match.

Future meetings continued to ignore fouls and safety, but they gradually shaped the rules of modern football. In 1888, two new rules forever changed the nature of American football: players were allowed to block the ball carrier and they were permitted to tackle below the waist.  Illegal in rugby, these two rules ratcheted up the violent possibilities of the game and created an entirely new kind of sport. According to historian Christopher C. Meyers, “college football was perhaps the most dangerous organized sport in the 1880s and 1890s.”

The popularity of the game surged. Like today, football created a huge boost in revenue and pride for universities. In 1909-1910 seasons, Yale made almost $73,000 in profit from football (In 2013, the highest revenue-producing team was the University of Texas-Austin at $109 million) Newspapers followed the teams and thousands of fans flocked to games. Students and alumni were obsessed. While a professor at Princeton, future President Woodrow Wilson once remarked to a group of alumni that “Princeton is noted in the wide world for three things: football, baseball, and collegiate instruction. I suppose the first of these is what you want to hear about.”

puck cover
Caption: Mrs. Newcome (her first game)–Oh! isn’t it awful? Horrible! Why, they will kill that man underneath! / Her Daughter (an enthusiast)–Oh! he doesn’t mind it, Mother. He’s unconscious by this time! Not so bad.

Bust Trusts, Bust Noses

Why was football so popular? The answer is simple: football is manly. Today, fans that watch men crush each other on television are only interrupted by commercials of men drinking beer and Peyton Manning telling them to just “rub some dirt on it.” The men of the Progressive era would have heartily approved. For most players and fans, football’s violence was not a detractor but a benefit. Football was how young men to demonstrate their “manliness” to each other and how they would learn the skills necessary to take on the dynamic turn-of-the-century climate.

Print shows a fashionably dressed, healthy young woman hanging on the arm of an injured football player. In the background, two hearty young men, a soldier and a sailor, home from military service during the Spanish-American War, and a young man, ill-suited for military service, are standing on the sidelines, no longer favored by the young woman. (The modern maid - as changeable as the seasons. November 23, 1898. Theodore Roosevelt Digital Library. Dickinson State University.)
Print shows a young woman hanging on the arm of an injured football player. In the background, a soldier and a sailor, home from military service during the Spanish-American War, and a young man, ill-suited for military service, are standing on the sidelines, no longer favored by the young woman.

Like production lines and the automobile, college football was an invention of the Progressive era, where social and political movements attacked “ills” created by industrialization and urbanization such as poverty, unregulated corporations, and nativism. Corrupt politics and big business lurked at every turn and the nation needed a strong, virile army to take it on. Football was a training ground for the harsh realities of the new American world. President Theodore Roosevelt wrote that “it seems to me, that a good rule for life is one borrowed from the football field—don’t flinch, don’t foul, hit the line hard.”  Roosevelt, known for his rugged approach to both life and politics, was an avid football supporter and was confident that, to learn how to bust trusts, one first had to bust some noses. (Roosevelt was also adamantly against paying players in any way, leading a debate against professionalism in college athletics. Like the safety debate, defining amateurism and the “student athlete” in college sports was and still is a major issue. Henry Beach Needham’s 1905 report in McClure’s Magazine that detailed “tramp athletes” and the financial benefits publicly and privately given to college players scandalized many fans.)

Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. as a football player at Harvard; being helped off the field after an accident. Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. approx. 1905. From: Theodore Roosevelt Collection photographs: family portraits. Provenance: Purchased by the Roosevelt Memorial Association from Rauscher, 1925 December 7. Harvard University.
Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. as a football player at Harvard; being helped off the field after an accident.

Roosevelt wasn’t alone. After a survey of football injuries in 1894, a doctor concluded that physical danger was a necessary risk to appropriately educating young men:

“No one will claim that youth should take no risks when it simply is a preparation for mature life which is full of ‘risks.’ If our nation survives, the man of the future must be able to elbow his way among rough men in the foul air of primary elections…he may need to ‘tackle’ an anarchist now and then and perhaps oftener. Where shall he develop his courage? Can he do it where there is no physical danger? If the game of football has a moral and mental side to it, if it furnishes good ideals of courageous manhood and of physical excellence to those who play it and to those who look on, if it can rescue the dude from his namby-pambyism, then play football.” 

Illegal striking opponent in face with heel of hand by defense, [photograph, ca. 1901] Alternate Title: [Harvard football players demonstrating illegal strike photograph, ca. 1901]. Harvard University. Dept. of Athletics, n.d. Harvard University.
Harvard football players demonstrating illegal strike photograph, ca. 1901].

Football is War

Football stars became the new soldiers. By the end of the nineteenth century, the American Civil War was a highly glorified event in popular culture. Many young men who played football had fathers or grandfathers who fought in the war; they were determined to have their own shot at heroism.  Football was easily related to war. Players could similarly put their bodies on the line for victory, execute tactical plans, wear “armor” (a popular name for padding), and play to “fight” songs based on Civil War marching tunes. The University of Virginia even played in silver grey and cardinal red to represent Confederate uniforms stained with blood until the colors were changed to blue and orange in 1888.  In this cartoon, below, a “Spartan” mother tearfully sends her boy off to college, which, due to football, was now the same as sending him to war.

Illustration shows a scene at the front door step of a house, with a young man headed for college, he is wearing a sweater with a large "Y" on it and is carrying a suitcase labeled "Harold Halfback Yale" and a football; his sobbing mother hands him a football helmet and shoulder-pads, and a little girl hands him a "First Aid Kit" and shin-guards. Even the dog is crying. Caption: The Spartan Mother Go, my boy! When duty calls. September 24, 1913. Prints and Photographs division. Library of Congress. Theodore Roosevelt Digital Library. Dickinson State University.
Illustration shows a scene at the front doorstep of a house, with a young man headed for college, he is wearing a sweater with a large “Y” on it and is carrying a suitcase labeled “Harold Halfback Yale” and a football; his sobbing mother hands him a football helmet and shoulder-pads, and a little girl hands him a “First Aid Kit” and shin-guards. Even the dog is crying.

Some argued that football was a healthy substitute for war because it allowed men to release their “natural” aggression. Walter Camp, a former player and coach at Yale (known as the “Father of Football), argued that a historian told him “that those nations which practiced semi-military games like football were not only the strongest nations but that they were the least likely to push into war, whereas other nations seemed to carry a chip on their shoulder, ready to fight on the smallest provocation.”  Some members of the public, like the artist of the cartoon below, believed that football stardom became so disproportionately admired that when the United States did have active-duty soldiers to honor during the Spanish-American war, football players still received greater admiration.

Men were not the only ones who approved of a little brutality. Though football has largely remained an all-male game (though there are exceptions, such as the Women’s Tackle Alliance), some of the proudest fans have been women. Football wasn’t just an opportunity for players to gain the respect of their fellow men. It was a chance to gain the admiration of the young women and assert one’s manliness during an era where women severely challenged traditional masculinity. During the same period football gained its foothold in America’s colleges, women demanded voting rights in larger, more successful efforts than ever before (eventually succeeding in 1919). Just like men on the football field, women were locked in a cultural, social, and political contest against gender discrimination and the Victorian-era definitions of femininity. Like football, it was a brutal game. Popular media, such as the cartoon below, depicted these new, young women as calloused admirers of football’s violence, to the horror of older generations. Though women were avid supporters, football kept women in the role of spectators.


Today, female football fans are still in force. They make up 39% of adult college football fans and their NFL viewership is growing each year. As Katie Baker of The New York Times states, “to assume that most women would take on look at the league’s violence and sexual mayhem and slowly walk away betrays a misunderstanding of football’s place in our culture, and also of women.”

A Brutal Game

But, how violent was football, really? Like most things, the answer depended on whom you talked to. Camp justly pointed out that brutality “is the hardest charge to meet because there is such a difference of opinion as to what constitutes brutality. In the eyes of timid people, any collisions between young men in the most properly conducted game would seem brutal, though these same collisions would seem tame fun to the average school-boy.”  Camp diligently collected surveys and data from former players and medical professionals to publish a public defense of football in 1894. Football Facts and Figures laid out a variety of opinions and statistics to defend football and, most particularly, its safety. One compilation of statistics for injuries to the head was drawn from a survey of roughly 150-200 former players, primarily from Yale, Harvard, Princeton, and Wesleyan.

President Roosevelt watching the Army and Navy football game in Philadelphia, Nov. 30, 1901. From: Thomas Collier Platt photograph album of Theodore Roosevelt (Roosevelt R500.P69a). Harvard University.
President Roosevelt watching the Army and Navy football game in Philadelphia, Nov. 30, 1901.

This list was as follows:

  • Concussion of brain 2
  • Blow of head 1
  • Kick in head 1
  • Broken nose 11
  • Scraped nose 1
  • Broken cheek bone 1
  • Incised wounds of face 6
  • Broken teeth1
  • Loosened teeth 1
  • Black eye 1
  • Ear torn 1
  • Ear drum ruptured 1

Total 28 

Roosevelt wholeheartedly approved of Camp’s work. He told Camp that he had “no patience with the people who declaim against it [football] because it necessitates rough play and occasional injuries.” Injuries became and expected and, perhaps, part of the game’s appeal. Few officials meant late hits, helmets, and padding meant players could launch themselves at others to tackle harder, lack of free substitutions meant targeting the knees of star players, and adrenaline meant full out fistfights in the middle of games. Roosevelt’s own son, Ted, hurt his collarbone and tooth while playing for Harvard. In 1893, President Grover Cleveland suspended the Army-Navy rivalry game after a report revealed that 24 players had been hospitalized and dozens more had to sit out following practices. The popular story from the day claimed that two officers in the stands challenged each other to a duel.  Until they were banned, mass plays like the infamous “flying wedge” demanded intense pushing and pulling and created extremely dangerous situations.

Players were easily able to bend rules. The addition of more and more complex rules from the Intercollegiate Football Association (later the Intercollegiate Athletic Association and then the National Collegiate Athletic Association) made officiating extremely difficult. Schools began to complain about the number of uncalled fouls. Harvard argued “the team that plays a gentlemanly game against one playing an unfair game will always be beaten” and the university banned football in 1885.  By 1887, the rules were changed to allow two referees on the field—one to watch the ball and the other to watch the players—but it was not enough.

Roosevelt recognized that players and coaches needed to police their own behavior if the game of football was to be saved. In his 1905 commencement speech at Harvard, his alma mater, Roosevelt talked at length about football and chided the lack of respect for the rules: “Brutality in playing a game should awaken the heartiest and most plainly shown contempt for the player guilty of it; especially if this brutality is coupled with a low cunning in committing it—without getting cause by the umpire.”

That same year, Roosevelt summon six prominent football figures, including Camp, to the White House so they could discuss and agree to play a more “gentlemanly” game.  All the participants signed a statement that they would play fairly, but the ferocity didn’t end.


Injuries were one thing, but deaths were another. While football may have had some of the trappings of war, no one approved of casualties. Few things caused more outrage than the realization that young men were dying for public entertainment. In the 1905 season alone, nineteenth people died playing football.

Football supporters insisted that deaths were anomalies caused by a lack of poor training or the victim’s poor physicality. The players, and not the game, were at fault. In Football Facts and Figures, the University of Wisconsin admitted that they had two players die during their 1893 season but wrote them off to “gross carelessness.” The University argued that one of the men was a new, untrained player who “knew really nothing of the game” and the other man “killed was a deaf-mute, and of course, out of his sphere, as a football player needs all his five senses.”

In some cases, however, deaths did cause a reaction. In 1909, Archer Christian, a fullback for the University of Virginia died after a concussion and brain hemorrhage in a home game against Georgetown. John Mosby, a Virginian, wrote a scathing letter to an U.Va. alumnus when he heard of Christian’s death. Mosby had been a partisan ranger for the Confederacy and had first-hand knowledge of the war that the Cavalier uniforms had originally meant to emulate. He was horrified by what he believed was a senseless death:

“I have read with indignation singled with great sorrow the account of the murder of young Christian, a student of the University of Virginia, in a foot-ball game with Georgetown. I use the word murder advisedly—the killing was not an accident…The very fact that a University surgeon went with the team shows that they know they were going to war. They neglected, however, to provide an ambulance and stretchers to carry off the wounded. I hope if this barbarous amusement is continued that the Board of Visitors will require it to be conducted in accordance with the regulations of modern war. Some years ago I expressed to Doctor Alderman [University President] an objection to foot-ball because it was not a recreation for students but that many were making it a profession; that it developed the brutal instincts of our nature and that it should be no part of the curriculum of the University; which it now is. A student who who [sic] has broken some body’s nose at foot-ball stands higher than a Master of Arts. I told him that he might as well have a bull-ring or a circus attached to the University: a man ought not to go to college to learn to be a circus rider or prize fighter.” 

In a tamer fashion than Mosby might have wanted, the President of the University did not ban football but instead asked for reform at the next meeting of the IAA. The IAA banned “hiking” the ball carrier and approved Virginia athletic director William Lambeth’s proposal to divide the game into quarters and allow a long halftime break.  The field where Christian suffered his fatal injury is now known as Lambeth Field.

Some schools were not satisfied with mere reform. Deaths threatened to end football permanently in many communities. In October 1897, University of Georgia player Richard Von Albade Gammon died after receiving a severe concussion in Atlanta during a game against the University of Virginia. Georgia disbanded its team and, just days after Gammon’s death, a law that would ban football from the state began to move through the state legislature.  The bill landed on the governor’s desk. The future of football in Georgia was in his hands. He vetoed the law when an unlikely advocate against the game came along: Gammon’s mother. Rosalind Gammon pleaded with her local representative to “grant me the right to request that my boy’s death should not be used to defeat the most cherished object of his life.” 

In this spirit, football has prevailed despite the danger. The love of the game has long outweighed the potential consequences of participating for many players, coaches, families, and fans. Though football was banned at other colleges, such as the University of Alabama, Wake Forest University, University of Tennessee, Trinity College (now Duke University), and numerous others in its early years, it always came back.


Today, football is still on the defense. It may be unbelievable to think that a sport that makes millions and billions on both the amateur and professional level could ever be in trouble, but people are beginning to again ask: is it worth it?

We now have strict rule enforcement (today’s games have seven different officials on the field and, in some instances, video replay), state-of-the-art gear, and vastly improved medical knowledge, but serious and permanent injuries are still rampant. While deaths are thankfully an increasingly rare occurrence, they still haunt the game. As recent as 2005, Arena Football League Los Angles Avengers player Al Lucas died after blunt force trauma to his spinal cord. Every person who has ever watched or played football has experienced that terrifying, breathless moment while they wait for a prostrate player on the field to move. These persisting problems have led to a serious crisis in the sport.

One of the most prominent debates concerns concussions and the lasting impact they have on players even after they have retired from the game. Some research has linked the type of contact and injuries common in football to brain damage and degenerative diseases. Though a lot of research is still in progress, many former players believe they are walking evidence of football’s dangers. As of July 2014, over 4,5000 retired NFL players are  attempting to finalize a $765 million dollar settlement with the League for inadequate treatment and discussion of concussions. This settlement could affect close to 20,000 former players and their families.

Former NFL player Howie Long, who now has two sons in the NFL, believes that improved awareness and proper training will help prevent the long-lasting effects of football that he sustained. Other players, like Tom Brady, Kurt Warner, and Bart Scott, have either flat-out forbidden or expressed reservations about letting their children play football. Former NFL player Terry Bradshaw recently announced that he wouldn’t let his son play football. This is the most alarming situation to many football fans. If football’s greatest heroes are putting their foot down, what will everyone else do?

College and professional football have been forced to respond and forced to reform. Commissioner of the NFL, Roger Goodell, spoke at the Harvard School of Public Health in 2012 about the positive role of football and the NFL’s commitment to safety, below. He noted that football has always had its challenges in safety just as it has always required leaders willing to reform it (including Roosevelt and his 1905 meeting). NCAA and the NFL have launched campaigns to prove their dedication to safety, especially to the parents of future football stars. Last August, the NFL invited 30 mothers of young football players to a roundtable on sports safety and invited mothers to attend (and participate in) a safety clinic hosted by Ohio State University.

For its popularity, football has had a relatively short history but an extremely dynamic one. Football is not the only dangerous sport, but its identity—both positive and negative—has always been strongly linked to contact. Today, we struggle with similar challenges as Roosevelt, Camp, and others did one hundred years ago. How do we protect players without destroying the game we love?

We will have to wait and see.

  1. John Pettegrew, Brutes in Suits: Male Sensibility in America, 1890-1920 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007), 135 
  2. Christopher C. Meyers, “’Unrelenting War on Football’: The Death of Richard Von Gammon and the Attempt to Ban Football in Georgia,” The Georgia Historical Quarterly 93.4 (2009), 389.
  3. David M. Nelson, The Anatomy of the Game: Football, the Rules, and the Men Who Made the Game (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1994), 51
  4. ibid, 40
  5. Meyers, “’Unrelenting War on Football,’” 389. 
  6. ibid, 291
  7. David L. Westby and Allen Sack, “The Commercialization and Functional Rationalization of College Football: Its Origins,” The Journal of Higher Education 47.6 (1976), 630.
  8. John S. Watterson III, “Political Football: Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and the Gridiron Reform Movement,” Presidential Studies Quarterly 25.3 (1995), 556
  9. Letter from Theodore Roosevelt to Leslie M. Hagen. [February 3, 1903?] Theodore Roosevelt Papers, Manuscripts division. The Library of Congress. Theodore Roosevelt Digital Library. Dickinson State University. 
  10. Walter Camp, ed., Football Facts and Figures: A Symposium of Expert Opinion on the Game’s Place in American Athletics (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1894), 46-57.
  11. To learn more about gender and its role in war at the end of the century, see Kristin L. Hoganson, Fighting for American Manhood: How Gender Politics Provoked the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000). 
  12. Pettegrew, Brutes in Suits, 130.
  13. “1888: The Origins of Orange and Blue,” U.Va. Magazine (2010),
  14. Camp, Football Facts and Figures, 6-7. 
  15. Pettegrew, Brutes in Suits, 130.
  16. Camp, Football Facts and Figures, 6-7. 
  17. ibid, 40
  18. Watterson III, “Political Football,” 557
  19. Ronald A. Smith, Sports and Freedom: The Rise of Big-Time College Athletics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 93. 
  20. Watterson III, “Political Football,” 558.
  21. Nelson, The Anatomy of the Game, 54. 
  22. ibid, 61
  23. “Speech of the President,” The New York Times, June 29, 1905
  24. Watterson III, “Political Football,” 560 
  25. Sarah K. Fields, Female Gladiators: Gender, Law and Contact Sport in America (Chicago: University of Illinois, 2008), 36.
  26. Camp, Football Facts and Figures, 33
  27. “All the Hoos in Hooville: 175 Years of Life at the University of Virginia,”
  28. ibid 
  29. Meyers, “’Unrelenting War on Football,’” 400-402. 
  30. ibid, 402-404
  31. Ken Shpigel, “Football Faces ‘Turning Point’ on Safety Risk,” June 20, 2012
  32. Shpigel, “Football Faces Turning Point.”
Christina Regelski is a Ph.D. student in History at Rice University. Her work focuses on race, gender and material culture in the eighteenth and nineteenth-century American South. Even though she spends an exorbitant amount of time with stacks of books and her imaginary cat, this Virginian takes time to explore the rich cultural, historical and culinary scene in Texas with her friends and fellow students.