When Football’s Deadly Brutality Outraged America

Squeezed November 18, 2009


This morning’s Morning Edition featured Frank Deford’s weekly sports commentary, where today he reminded us a of a time, 100 years ago, when to step onto a football field would be to put one’s very life at risk (never mind one’s leg bones, ribs, and brain cells). Sort of like how mixed martial arts was received when it was first released not so long ago, I guess?

Football was so gruesome at the turn of the century that in 1905, no less than President Roosevelt himself demanded that the sport clean itself up, and the notorious flying wedge was banned.

However, by ought-nine, as they said back then, it was still a brutal battle royal. In the season’s championship match — what may be called the first “game of the century” — The New York Times summed it up as “an indescribable tangle of bodies, arms and legs.”

That game, on Nov. 20, between two undefeateds — Yale and Harvard — was typical of the era. There were no touchdowns. In fact, when Yale won 8-0, it finished its whole season completely unscored upon.

The forward pass had been legalized, in a limited fashion — but football was mostly just pounding scrimmage. Few players wore helmets, and a close observer declared that as Harvard and Yale pummeled each other, “It was the most magnificent sight … every lineman’s face was dripping with blood.”

Fortunately, rule changes instituted the following year made the game safer for all involved. But Deford asserts that some things never change:

… Canny old [Col. John Mosby] also made this point: “It is notorious that football teams are largely composed of professional mercenaries who are hired to advertise colleges. Gate money is the valuable consideration.

The Gray Ghost wrote that exactly a century ago, and though the NCAA could clean up the game on the field, it never has figured out how to manage the other abuses.

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