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.”
Infantilism vs. manhood aside, some opponents of football worried the game was damaging to young men’s morals in that it encouraged, and even glorified, cheating and bad sportsmanship. On that point, even TR was forced to agree. Miller writes of a 1905 Harvard-alumni-dinner speech at which President Roosevelt, addressing the growing outrage over football violence, warned, “When the injuries are inflicted by others, either wantonly or of set design, we are confronted by the question not of damage to one man’s body, but of damage to the other man’s character.” The outcry had reached a critical mass, and Roosevelt, champion of Progressives but defender of football, knew he had to act.
Later that year, at his “football summit” with major college coaches, he opens one meeting with a stark assessment: “Football is on trial.” Out of that summit came recommendations for an increased focus on sportsmanship, as well as equipment and rules changes (the most important of which was the forward pass, which opened up the game and reduced the number of injury-producing scrums). While the summit didn’t end the controversy over football, it did dampen the cries for its abolition, thereby buying some time. As the changes in the rules and improvements in equipment had their intended effect, the sport’s popularity continued to grow. There were further efforts to ban football when well-publicized deaths or injuries occurred in subsequent years, but Roosevelt never again insinuated himself into the debate as he had in 1905.
Miller brings life to an era we normally see only through grainy black-and-white film. And, while there’s enough football action and information to please the most fanatical gridiron fan, he avoids getting bogged down in football jargon. Instead, he uses the sport as a window into a tumultuous time in U.S. history. The fact is that much of the debate in the Progressive era remains relevant to today’s Washington, as political leaders have their own scrums over basic philosophical issues. Miller also manages to infuse The Big Scrum with drama and tension, even though the eventual outcome is known to all. After all, football has thrived on the college and professional level to a degree neither Teddy Roosevelt nor any of his contemporaries could have imagined.
Still, the controversy over its violence continues. The NCAA and NFL struggle to address ongoing concerns over injuries as athletes become larger, stronger, and faster. New rules are instituted annually in an attempt to make the game safer for its players, most recently in the area of helmet-to-helmet contact. But no matter how these safety issues work themselves out, football will continue to be played. If the Progressives couldn’t knock it out of bounds, who can?
— Mr. Sajak, the host of Wheel of Fortune, spent several years as host of a baseball show on MLB Radio. This article originally appeared in the April 18, 2011, issue of National Review.