Sports began to occupy a central place in American culture during Roosevelt’s life. They have become even more important since then.
In the United States today, parents not only encourage but often expect their children to participate in athletics. They will cite many motives, starting with the obvious fact that sports are good for health and fitness. They will also discuss the intangible benefits of learning about teamwork and building individual character. These factors can be tricky to measure, though several academics have found evidence that kids who play sports stay in school longer, vote more often, and earn more money as adults.
Explaining this phenomenon is difficult, but it may have something to do with developing a competitive instinct and a desire for achievement. Parents rarely talk about sports as a patriotic duty the way Roosevelt did, but athletic participation almost certainly influences the character of a nation. Americans are much more likely than Europeans to play sports. They are also more likely to attribute economic success to hard work, as opposed to luck. This may be another source of American exceptionalism.
For all of his flamboyant chest-thumping, Roosevelt did not wholly discount the concerns of football’s prohibitionists. Their complaints about violence were the products of a genuine problem. Other pastimes shared many of football’s virtues without the same dangers. Would it be possible to balance a desire for safety with a proper understanding of the social value of a rugged sport? This was the challenge — an age-old concern that remains alive today whenever debates erupt over zero-tolerance policies in public schools, the use of aluminum bats in Little League games, and the frequency of concussions in youth athletics. At what point do the risks of play become unacceptably hazardous? Quite often, there are no easy answers.
Violence in football remains a subject of occasional controversy — and so does the Progressive instinct to impose regulations on it. In 2010, Time put a deflated ball on its cover and called the sport “too dangerous for its own good.” Players of all ages are vulnerable to pulled muscles and twisted ankles. In rare cases, they may suffer catastrophic injuries, such as broken necks. Some debilities become obvious only with the passage of time. A 2009 study sponsored by the National Football League and conducted by the University of Michigan found that retired professional football players who were at least fifty years old were five times more likely to suffer from dementia than members of the general population. The problem was worse with younger veterans. Data such as these inspire questions about how the game is played and how it might be improved for the benefit of its participants.
It has also prompted outrage. Popular author Malcolm Gladwell has compared the “suffering and destruction” in dogfighting to injuries from football. He suggested that both activities were “morally unacceptable.” Congresswoman Linda Sanchez, a California Democrat, has said that the NFL’s research could not be trusted. “Hey, why don’t we let tobacco companies determine whether smoking is bad for your health or not?” she asked. “It’s a very appropriate metaphor.” The NFL is aware of its problem: Just last month, it moved kickoffs from the 30- to the 35-yard line in an effort to increase touchbacks and reduce injury-prone kick returns.
And still we watch and play, urging our children to do the same. Nobody speaks of prohibiting football anymore. At a time when many influential people did, however, Theodore Roosevelt stepped in and played an unheralded but critical role in the sport’s development. It is probably too much to call him football’s savior. Yet he may very well have been its most indispensable fan.
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
WEDNESDAY: Football’s death toll
YESTERDAY: The Progressives who tried to ban football
— 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.