The Who2 Blog

Teddy Roosevelt and the History of Football

This week the blog for has an article called “Score One for Roosevelt,” recounting how President Teddy Roosevelt helped “save” American football.

  It’s an interesting tale that’s been told a few times in the last few years, the story of how some 20th century eastern eggheads needed football to feel more manly.  As told by 21st century eggheads who apparently like the idea that a macho sport wouldn’t even exist except for this one little guy with glasses.

Teddy Roosevelt became a football fan in 1876, while he was a student at Harvard.  By the fourth year of his presidency, in 1905, the popularity of football was being challenged by a chorus of people who considered the sport too brutal. That year saw 18 deaths in the sport — three college players and 15 high school players.

That’s not brutal, that’s good manly fun!  At least that’s what defenders of the sport argued. Henry Cabot Lodge, during his commencement speech at Harvard in 1896, said “The time given to athletic contests and the injuries incurred on the playing field are part of the price which the English-speaking race has paid for being world-conquerors.”  Even Harvard President Charles W. Eliot, who later became one of the most vocal opponents of the sport, once said, “effeminacy and luxury are even worse evils than brutality.”

In its early days, football was pretty brutal, one giant scrum after another. President Roosevelt’s summit on football resulted in a host of rule changes that made it at least a little safer, and the new rules changed the game forever.  Especially the new rule that allowed the forward pass.

At first the forward pass wasn’t used much.  It was considered a sissification of the sport.  Ask a rugby player, and they’ll tell you that it IS a sissification. Eventually, of course, the forward pass became the thing of the game.  

Reading between the stories, it’s hard to say if Teddy Roosevelt actually saved the sport of football.  Because it’s hard to say how threatened the sport really was.  Yes, there were cries from some quarters about player safety, but mobs of people still showed up to games.  More than showed up for baseball games, in fact.

It’s a little telling that the story of Teddy and football has been told several times over the last couple of years by east coast eggheads at publications like the Smithsonian (who also covered it in last year’s “The Forward Pass“), Wall Street Journal (“Unnecessary Roughness“), the National Review Online (“Teddy Roosevelt Becomes a Football Fan“) and the Weekly Standard (“How Theodore Roosevelt Changed Football“).  Don’t these guys know that it’s baseball that negates the effeminacy of the bow tie and gives you that desperately needed manly air?

P.S. I don’t mean to suggest that President Theodore Roosevelt was not manly.  We all know he killed lots of big animals, shot at people during bogus wars and hacked his way through the wilderness on more than a few continents.  To read more about another of his manly exploits, check out the Who2 Common Bonds feature, Presidents Who Slugged Someone.

(Photo from the Library of Congress)

Related Biography

Share this: