When pigskin al­most passed away

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

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.

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