The Progressives Who Tried
to Ban Football

The busybody movement targets the popular sport.


John J. Miller

The dispute over football and its future marked not only a turning point for the development of sports in the United States, but a crisis for what was becoming the most dominant force in American politics.

In the 1890s, just as football was growing into a popular sensation, the Progressive movement was gaining irresistible momentum. A broad-based drive for social reform, it blossomed during Roosevelt’s presidency and never has released its grip on American life. Its fundamental achievement was to recast the relationship between citizens and their government. Whether this was for good or ill remains a bitter argument a century later among partisans on the Left and the Right. Liberals tend to view the Progressive Era as a missed opportunity — a series of reforms that delivered modest benefits to middle-class voters anxious about economic instability and demographic shifts, but also an accommodation with Christian morality and market capitalism that put off a more radical rearrangement of the social contract.

Conservatives view Progressivism as a quixotic effort based on an unfounded faith in human perfectibility that led directly to the rise of the welfare state and the erosion of individual freedom and personal responsibility. Whatever the merits of these warring claims, the diverse accomplishments of the Progressive movement include trust-busting, railroad regulation, the passage of food and drug laws, restrictions on child labor, the prohibition of alcohol, and the implementation of a federal income tax.

When the Progressives turned their eyes to football, many saw nothing but the violence. If their first impulse was to wince at the brutality, their next urge was to protect the boys and young men from what they considered a frivolous and fatal activity. Why pass laws to get children out of urban factories and coal mines if they were simply going to maim themselves on football’s killing fields? So the Progressives tried to address the problem of football by turning to their favorite solution: They sought to regulate it out of existence. They saw the sport as an unacceptable risk and believed that its participants were not capable of making their own judgments about the costs and benefits of the game. Instead, elites would relieve them of the burden of choosing to play or not to play. They would ban the sport for the sake of its players.

The supporters of football took a different view. They appreciated the game’s organic development and valued the place of athletic competition in American culture. Although some relished football’s violence and were content to ignore its occasional corruption, most wanted to refine the rules and broaden the appeal of the game, even though they could not always agree on the particulars of how to do this. They recognized that one of the chief goals of sports — especially a rough sport such as football — was to socialize young men by helping them learn how to channel their masculine impulses toward productive ends.

Shortly before he was president, Theodore Roosevelt became well-known for the promotion of what he called “the doctrine of the strenuous life.” In a speech in 1899, he hailed “that highest form of success which comes, not to the man who desires mere easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph.”

In Roosevelt’s estimation, the foes of football were wrongheaded idealists who simply refused to accept the risks that are attached to virtually any human endeavor. They threatened to feminize an entire generation. At stake was nothing less than the future of the United States: On the threshold of a new century, would the country seize its historic destiny and grow into a world power or would it stop short of this accomplishment because it had turned out, in Roosevelt’s words, “mollycoddles instead of vigorous men”?

The story continues in The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football, published this week by Harper.

NRO runs excerpts from The Big Scrum this week.

TUESDAY: Teddy Roosevelt attends his first football game

YESTERDAY: Football’s death toll

TOMORROW: The football fights of 2011

— John J. Miller is national correspondent for National Review and the author of The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football, published this week by Harper.