When pigskin almost passed away
Like Rodney Dangerfield, former Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter gets no respect. Specter penned an opinion piece calling on Congress to intervene to save football. The NFL owners have locked out the players. The football season may be in jeopardy. Something must be done.
Many people reacted by chortling. Does the aging Mr. Specter, who was denied a sixth term last year, think he is still in the Senate? Is he Rip van Specter? And what can a politician do to save football?
Quite a lot, John J. Miller says in response to the last question. President Theodore Roosevelt played an indispensable role in rescuing football as we know it, and Mr. Miller, a veteran political reporter for National Review, has written an engaging account of this infrequently told story.
“The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football” is part sports history and part history you learned in government class. When Theodore Roosevelt was president, football was a violent and primitive sport. In 1905, at least 18 players died on the field. The equipment wasn’t safe, the rules were imprecise, and the game was played with a brutality that makes today’s concussioninducing, bone-crushing hits look like an Eric Massa tickling session by comparison.
The height of the Progressive era wasn’t a convenient time to be doing anything that could be considered barbaric. The Progressives, Roosevelt’s political allies, wanted to ban the violent sport. The New York Times published an editorial titled “Two Curable Evils,” in which football was one evil and the other was lynching black people.
Yet Roosevelt was instinctively drawn to a sport that closely resembled combat. Mr. Miller recounts Roosevelt’s upbringing as a sickly child, skinny, frail and racked by a debilitating form of asthma. Yet at his father’s urging, Roosevelt threw himself into grueling physical exercise in an effort to overcome those maladies. The hard work transformed Roosevelt from a weakling into the Rough Rider he would later become.
“The Big Scrum” supplies bi- ographical details about Roosevelt and juxtaposes them with a detailed history of football’s gradual evolution from a knockoff of rugby (can you imagine football without downs?) to the sport we know today. We learn that Roosevelt wasn’t football’s only Progressive sympathizer — Woodrow Wilson also took a dim view of efforts to curtail the sport at the college level.
Speaking on the subject of football violence to a Harvard alumni meeting, Roosevelt said, “When the injuries are inflicted by others, either wantonly or of set design, we are confronted by the question not of damage to one man’s body, but of damage to the other man’s character.” The story reaches its climax when Roosevelt convenes a private football summit. “Football,” he told the assembled, “is on trial.”
The summit produced several meaningful reforms. Participants agreed to a greater emphasis on sportsmanship, taking some of the bloodlust out of football. They also favored better, safer equipment. Rules were modified, most crucially the introduction of the forward pass. Can you imagine football without the forward pass? Without it, it looked like a less gentle version of hockey.
The football summit was no panacea. Football remained controversial, but the summit did take the momentum away from those who wanted to ban the sport, buying some time and sparing football the fate that befell cockfighting. As further improvements were made, football’s popularity grew by leaps and bounds. In today’s second progressive era, banning the sport, which is as safe as ever, would be unthinkable. President Obama is a football fan. In the past 30 years, football arguably has overtaken baseball as the national pastime.
Mr. Miller probably overstates the case for Roosevelt’s importance to football. Even in his own book, other figures loom larger in the sport’s development. “The Big Scrum” might have benefited from focusing more on the impact of Roosevelt’s football advocacy and less on the more familiar stories of the president’s personal athleticism.
That being said, when the game of football was at risk, Teddy Roosevelt did ride to its rescue. During the current NFL lockout, perhaps Arlen Specter has a point that we could benefit from similar leadership. Either way, for millions of grateful football fans, Theodore Roosevelt certainly earned his place on Mount Rushmore.
W. James Antle III is associate editor of the American Spectator.