Baseball may still try to market itself as our national pastime, but there’s little doubt that football is our national passion. By any measurement, the popularity of college and professional football is staggering. Teams in the NCAA and NFL reap billions of dollars in TV revenue; billions more are wagered legally and illegally; and NCAA schools drew more than 48 million spectators in 2009, while the NFL attracted another 17 million.
Given those numbers, it’s hard to believe that, little more than a hundred years ago, at the dawn of the Progressive movement, there was a concerted effort to ban the sport. The violence and brutality that made serious injury common (resulting, sometimes, even in death) sparked a crusade that very nearly killed football in its infancy.
In longtime NR writer John J. Miller’s new book, The Big Scrum, the battle between Progressive reformers and the defenders of the game is played out on a series of separate tracks that finally merge at a “football summit” in October 1905, in Pres. Theodore Roosevelt’s White House. Although even Miller admits that his subtitle — “How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football” — might overstate the case a bit, he leaves little room for doubt that TR’s advocacy of the sport, and his recognition that the rules had to change in order to save it, helped preserve the game and set the stage for its explosive growth. It’s not difficult to imagine that without his intercession, football today — if it existed at all — might find itself in the sporting public’s consciousness somewhere between indoor soccer and cockfighting.
Miller writes about college football enthusiastically and eloquently — not as mere games, but as “cultural rituals of deep significance.” Though he knows the sport only as a spectator, it’s obvious he bleeds the maize and blue of the University of Michigan. As a young boy, he’s taught by his father to sing the Wolverine fight song, “Hail to the Victors,” and he meets his wife on his way to Michigan Stadium. For his fellow football lovers, The Big Scrum provides a fascinating, detailed look at a nearly forgotten chapter that could easily have robbed them of a tradition that provides so many touchstones in their lives. But, even for those who prefer pigskin to remain on pigs, the book’s vivid character portraits entertainingly recreate a time in America when the forces of Progressivism were attempting to reshape the nation. Miller cites a 1903 editorial from the reliably shrill New York Times, of which the headline, “Two Curable Evils,” best sums up the decibel level. One evil was the lynching of blacks. The other was football.
Football began in earnest not long after the Civil War, as a variation of rugby played primarily by young college men. The game — marked by “scrums” (masses of athletes pushing and shoving) — was brutal, and the rules were, to say the least, unsettled, usually decided by the two teams just before each contest. It was touted as a physical activity that would improve a student’s mind and character, but players were not above gouging an eye or snapping a bone while writhing within a tangle of bodies on a muddy field (while wearing no helmets or other protective equipment). The violence and resultant injuries attracted the attention of reformers who saw the risks as unacceptable. For many progressives, abolishing football became as important as instituting an income tax.
At first glance, Theodore Roosevelt seems an unlikely champion of football, as Miller introduces us to a young, frail, sickly boy nicknamed “Teedie” who battles everything from asthma to seasickness. However, after his father confronts him in a fateful — and possibly apocryphal — meeting, at which the elder Roosevelt reportedly announces, “You must make your body. It is hard drudgery to make one’s body, but I know you will do it,” he begins a grueling regimen and develops a growing appreciation for what he comes to call “the doctrine of the strenuous life.” Indeed, once the assassination of William McKinley thrusts Roosevelt into the White House, he takes pains to conceal the extent of his physical activity, fearing Americans might not approve of such a “sporting president.”
We also come to know Walter Chauncey Camp, a player, coach, and sportswriter known as the “father of American football,” who participates in the summit; E. L. Godkin, influential editor of The Nation, who campaigns passionately for the abolition of the game; and Charles W. Eliot, who serves as Harvard’s president for 40 years and is an outspoken opponent of college football. When Eliot, pushing for outright prohibition, claims that no sport can be honorable if it embraces “the barbarous ethics of warfare,” Roosevelt (a Harvard alumnus) shoots back, “I think Harvard will be doing the baby act if she takes any such foolish course as President Eliot advises.”