RISE OF GRIDIRON, FALL OF RUGBY (1883-1889)
By Allyn Freeman
An event suggesting the demise of rugby in America occurred in 1889 when Caspar Whitney and Walter Camp published in the magazine, This Week’s Sport, the first “All-American Football Team.“ Notice: the article’s was not titled “All-American Rugby Team.” After the rule changes, the singular autumn college sport was known nationally as just “football.”
What were the salient reasons for rugby’s decline?
A fair and reasonable question for today is whether the changeover from rugby to gridiron football occurred because of an aspiration to “Americanize” a foreign sport. The answer is a definite, “no.”
There is no record in Camp’s writing that he altered the rugby rules to create a genuinely “American” football game. There was no characteristic of rugby that evoked Jolly Olde England like the sport of cricket with its strict code of white uniforms and breaks for tea. No one cited Tom Brown’s School Days, the 1857 novel by Thomas Hughes about life and sport at Rugby School.
The significant conversion from the British sport of rounders to baseball (Officially demarcated rules in 1858) represented the innovation of a new American sport. And once the country adopted these guidelines, baseball flourished in all sections of the United States to become the national pastime,
Walter Camp and the Rules Committee thought they offered some needed improvements to produce a more evenhanded and practical rugby game.
- Camp Wins The Argument – Walter Camp wanted changes. He believed passionately that his innovations would create a fairer sport. Once Yale dominated the Rules Committee, opposition crumbled. Since the Committee met annually, there was every reason to believe that if the changes did not succeed, old rugby rules could be reinstated.
- Limited teams in existence – Few colleges played rugby in 1877, the year after Yale and Harvard met in the “Concessionary Game” in New Haven. Four years later in 1881, the total had increased to only about twenty institutions. Many schools played but one or two contests annually. The game of rugby never achieved a dedicated following of popularity on campus.
- Three colleges dominated – The Big Three, Yale, Princeton, and Harvard played rugby and then football often, up to seven to ten times each season. The frequency of play generated campus interest and coverage in the schools’ newspapers. And, the end of season matches at the Polo Grounds in New York City, attracted attendees from alumni and the student bodies, numbering as high as 10,000 paying fans.
- Point scoring – Rugby’s scoring appeared arbitrary, especially, no points awarded for a try if the conversion failed. The revised scoring for gridiron seemed more representative of a carry and contact sport by finally rewarding touchdowns. Over time, newer rules reduced the importance of the conversion. Historic football scoring modifications follow:
Years TD Field Goal Conversion Safety
1883 2 5 4 1
1884-1887 4 5 2 2
1898-1903 5 5 1 2
1904-1908 5 4 1 1
Other Countries, Other Games
It wasn’t only America that had its own version of a running, carrying, and contact sport. Some nations created homegrown football games, mainly, with differences in ball shape, field size, goal scoring, and esoteric rules.
- Canadian Football – Around 1880, Canada adopted similar rugby rules to Camp’s modification, pioneering the concept of downs. Eventually, Canadian football resembled football played in the United States in the 20th Century, especially, ball size, uniforms with padding, helmets, and, importantly, forward passing, The Gray Cup – Canada’s Super Bowl – was inaugurated in 1908.
- Australian Football – “Footy” as it is called, marked a major departure from rugby union, becoming a parallel national sport (1860s) that emphasized kicking only for goals. The game, which is native to Down Under, is the only contact ball sport played on an oval and not a rectangular pitch because of its Melbourne Cricket Club beginnings.
- Gaelic Football – Ireland’s Gaelic football originated with the ancient game of caid. It is hybrid of rugby and association football, played with a round ball and featuring netted goals under goalposts.
Looking back almost 140-years ago, it’s important to recall the myths and history of why there was a seamless conversion from rugby to gridiron. Although all agreed that rugby marked a significant improvement over the Boston Game played by Harvard, it failed to find ardent supporters.
After the rule changes the media nomenclature differentiated the three college sports as Association Football, Rugby Football, and Gridiron Football. These designations decades later would become Soccer and Football, with rugby rarely mentioned because it was played infrequently.
By 1899, more than 125 colleges in America played football as the sport spread from the east coast to the rest of the country Most of these schools had never played rugby. In that year, 50,000 fans watched Yale and Harvard tie in Cambridge.
A recent research poll, indicated that football maintains its status as America’s most popular sport. All accolades to Walter Camp.