When Football Gave America A Lesson In Problem Solving

footballAnother football season has come to a close and, whether we like it or not, the focus of the sport will now shift from touchdowns and goal-line stands to what can be done to prevent more concussions and, ultimately, preserve the game in America.

Violence in football is a serious issue, and changes are needed in the game for the good of the players. Much has been written about the need to reduce injuries, especially head injuries, but it’s worth noting that excessive violence is not a new issue in football. As the NFL and other levels wrestle with this issue, it would do them well to look back at how football dealt with this problem at the turn of the twentieth century.

It may come as a surprise to many, but more than a hundred years ago, football was nearly banned because of carnage on the gridiron.  I learned about this after reading an excellent article on the subject in the monthly magazine, Imprimis, published by Hillsdale College.  In “Football and the American Character,” John Miller reveals that in 1905, eighteen people died playing football.  As he put it, the deaths…

“were not freak accidents as much as the inevitable toll of a violent game. And they horrified a group of activists who crusaded against football itself—wanting not merely to remove violence from the sport, but to ban the sport altogether. At the dawn of the Progressive era, the social and political movement to prohibit football became a major cause.”

Calls for the game to be outlawed came from major newspapers like the New York Evening Post as well as leaders in higher education, including the president of Harvard.  At the time, college football was the primary game in town when it came to the sport, and Harvard was one of the powerhouses.

However, the president of the United States at that time, Theodore Roosevelt, wanted to save football. Roosevelt was such a big fan of the game that he had gone out of his way to recruit football players when he put together the Rough Riders in 1898.  He believed football helped build character and was intent on saving it for future generations.

So, at the end of the grisly 1905 season, he brought together a group of reform-minded leaders in the sport to push for new safety rules, and they did just that.  According to Miller,

“football experienced an extreme makeover: The yardage necessary for a first down increased from five to ten. Rules-makers also created a neutral zone at the line of scrimmage, limited the number of players who could line up in the backfield, made the personal foul a heavily penalized infraction, and banned the tossing of ballcarriers. These were important revisions, and each was approved with an eye toward improving the safety of players.”

Their efforts greatly reduced injuries and even led to the creation of an organization that we know today as the NCAA.

I find this story fascinating, not just because I experienced my share of concussions while playing football in high school, but because of the fact that this entire controversy took place out of a courtroom.  There were no lawsuits. There were just highly motivated and creative leaders who came together to solve a major problem without being forced to by a judge.

Of course, lawsuits are a fact of life in America today and are sometimes needed to bring about change.  However, it’s not too naïve to believe that the leaders in the game can take a page out of Teddy Roosevelt’s playbook and implement changes where changes are needed. Americans pride ourselves on being a self-governing people, and the current situation in football is a prime opportunity to show the world that we still have the ability to, pardon the pun, tackle this major issue before we are forced to by a judge.

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