By Allyn Freeman

In 1905, a headline in the sports pages of the Chicago Tribune shocked the nation: “FOOTBALL YEAR’S DEATH HARVEST.” The article’s sub headline enumerated the 1904 season’s horrific tally of fatalities: “Nineteen Players Have Been Killed, 138 Hurt.” The appalling statistical fact spread to coaches and faculty of every football team in the country. To parents with a son playing football, especially, in high school or prep school, this news exposed an ominous revelation.

The awful truth was finally laid bare; gridiron football was a brutal sport that caused serious bodily injury and death. Single player losses had long been reported locally, but the Chicago newspaper accumulation of the startling count of mortality and injury bore witness to an on-going national tragedy.

The Cincinnati Commercial Tribune featured a cartoon of the Grim Reaper sitting on a football goalpost, his scythe “harvesting” players laid lifeless on the field.

From that memorable day in 1905, strong voices shouted vigorously for restructuring gridiron. Yet, many others demanded abolishing the game outright. Football was in a turmoil of controversy. Quickly needed reforms would come in 1906, spurred on by an extraordinary and unprecedented boost from President Theodore Roosevelt.

Numerous demands had sounded for decades to reform football. The reasons were many and varied: severe on field violence, no mandatory equipment protection, lack of rules, use of interlocking movements like the dangerous flying wedge, and hazardous gang tackling. In addition, college administrators decried the enthusiastic interest by the student body, which lit Friday night pep rally bon fires, and paraded en masse around the campus on game days, eschewing academic study.

Saturday’s college fall football attracted large crowds rivaling professional baseball in attendance. The matches often generated huge sums from paying fans. The first Stanford vs. Cal football game in 1892 totaled $30,000 in gate receipts! The University of Pennsylvania built Franklin Field stadium in 1895 with a seating capacity of 30,000. Harvard opened Soldier Field in 1903 with 42,000 seats. College football had become big business and funded athletic departments,

Four colleges – Columbia, Duke, Union, and Northwestern – abandoned football. The most surprising outcome in the national debate came from the University of California, Berkeley, and its Bay Area rival, Stanford, which decided to drop football to play rugby union. From 1906 to 1914, a rugby renaissance flourished among far western universities and newly formed rugby clubs in San Francisco. Even high schools in the Bay Area switched from football to rugger.

Final Note

A fortuitous sports article in a Chicago newspaper had opened the proverbial Pandora’s box that narrated the evils of football. The stated facts could no longer be ignored; gridiron could be hazardous to a player’s health, often causing serious bodily harm, and, on occasion, death.

The wheels of change started to turn, commencing with President Roosevelt’s October 1905 call to the spot’s gatekeepers to reform the game. During the following months, activists gathered to discuss what steps to take to modify the rules and make the sport less violent.

In Part II, new and radical rule proposals win out against the old guard.

(NB: An excellent book about American football is John Sayle Watterson’s

College Football: History, Spectacle, Controversy, Johns Hopkins University Press.)

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