Sometimes sports can reflect the temper of the times.

A 16th-century eyewitness to football games described them this way:

Sometimes their noses gush with blood, sometimes their eyes start out and sometimes hurt in one place and sometimes in another, but whosoever scapeth away the best goeth not scot free, but is either sore wounded, craised, or bruised so as he dieth of it or else scapeth very hardlie; and no mervaile, for they have sleights to meet one betwixt two, to dash him against the heart with their elbowes, to butt him under the short ribbes with their gripped fists and with their knees to catch him on the legs and piche him on the necke, with a hundred such murthering devices.

And hereof groweth envy, rancour, and malice, and sometime brawling murther, homicide, and great effusion of blood as daily experience teacheth.

Early football game in the 1880s

Three and a half centuries later, even though playing conditions had improved, the violence associated with the game was making the headlines, prompting an editorial writer to opine:

The spirit of “win at any cost” seems to inspire the football teams of this country . . . The fault is not always with football; it is usually with the men who play the game.

But this wasn’t the first time football deaths resulted in a crisis and threatened the game’s continuance.

Back during the 1905-06 season, the number of fatalities caught President Roosevelt’s attention, thus kicking the whole thing into the dubious realm of politics:

The rash of local injuries came just a couple weeks before the president of the United States, Teddy Roosevelt, telegraphed Harvard president Charles Eliot asking him to address the year’s record of 19 deaths—”more than double that of the yearly average for the last five years, the total for that period being forty-five”—for fear the sport’s bloody reputation would get it banned outright instead of changed to protect the players. In particular, Roosevelt pushed the “open game,” whose players, he said, “escaped with less than their usual quota of accidents.” It was meant to save the game from the vicious scrums seen in the Edison film above, which look quaint in black-and-white but caused the debilitating or fatal injuries that felled players like Wise.

From this the modern game of football was born: the forward pass, the ten-yard first down, the lengthening of the line of scrimage, a new emphasis on penalties and improving the quality of refereeing to prevent the dangerous “mucker” play on the lines, and the creation of the NCAA’s predecessor. The movement to ban football, which was quite strong at the time, faded. Fatalities plunged, and the crisis settled down.


Perhaps because it was so public, it seems inevitable to us now that deaths during football games would sooner or later become a cause celebre for reformers of the Progressive Era, much as “bullying” (so-called) and obesity are today:

What does this tell us about the 1905 crisis? Simply this: The varying agendas may be attributed to many factors, including the reform efforts common to the Progressive Era. In the early 1900s the country experienced one of its most intense periods of self-criticism and political unrest. Earnest reformers attempted to eliminate corruption and inefficiency, reintroduce democratic practices, and improve the standards of safety. Thus in 1906, Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act, the medical and gastronomical version of the new football rules. As in politics, college athletics had its version of muck-raking journalists, who like journalists Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens burrowed into the unethical activities of win-at-all-cost coaches and alumni.

~ The Literary Digest, December 3, 1910.
~ “A Brief History of Football Head Injuries and a Look Towards the Future”, Whet Moser, Chicago Magazine, May 4, 2012.
“The Gridiron Crisis of 1905: Was It Really a Crisis?” [PDF], John S. Watterson, 2000.
“The Football Crisis of 1909-1910: The Response of the Eastern ‘Big Three’ “ [PDF], John S. Watterson III, 1981.
Annual Survey of Football Injury Research, 1931-2007.