October 9: 
TR Takes On Football 

​October ​9

" And so I have called you all down here to see whether you won't all agree to abide by both the letter and the spirit of the rules, for that will help.

TR, according to William Reid, October 9, 1905.

The year 1905 was a tough year for football. It was an on-again, off-again sport that was not given great attention. When it was given attention, it was bad. The game was rowdy, filled with dozens of injuries - and multiple deaths.

Theodore Roosevelt had a strong interest in football. It was a "rough, manly sport," just his style. But his teenage son Ted was playing the game in school, and was getting more than his fair share of hits and scrapes. And in college, football was a much more dangerous sport. It was time to take action.

TR takes up the story.


"I believe in the game"

When Theodore Roosevelt was a student at Harvard, the game of football was, in its incarnation, only a little younger than Roosevelt. Variations of the game, that bore resemblance to mob-like assaults, had been around for decades. Colleges stopped playing the game for a while, but by the 1860's, football had returned, evolving a little closer to the game we know today.

But it was still incredibly violent. There were years that the numbers were worse, but based on numbers from the New York Times and Chicago Tribune, there were 159 substantial injuries from football games, 88 of them from college games.  18 people died from the sport, 3 in college. 

Back in 1893, TR was calling for enforcement of rules in football. In Harper's Weekly, he warned:

" The brutality must be done away with and the danger minimized. If necessary the college facilities must take a hand, and those of the different colleges must co-operate. The rules for football ought probably to be altered so as to do away with the present mass play [two teams of up to 25 people per team], and I think, also the present system of interference, while the umpires [yes, they had a referee and an umpire officiating the game] must be made to prevent slugging of any kind of foul play by the severest penalties.

TR never played football; he boxed throughout his life, into his presidency. His oldest son Ted had been playing at Groton (a boarding school in Massachusetts), and had already gotten quite a few scrapes and bruises, and even a broken collarbone. And while he wasn't worried about his injuries, he still wrote to the headmaster, worried about Ted getting "battered out before he can play in college."  

And by 1905, with injuries and body count rising, there were renewed calls to drop the sport of football.  President Roosevelt invited the coaches and administrators of three of the major colleges - Harvard, Princeton, and Yale - to the White House, to discuss the perils facing college football. He felt the same as he did in his Harper's article; "Every effort should be made to minimize the risk, but it is mere unmanly folly to try and do away with the sport because the risk exists." 

According to notes by Harvard coach William Reid, the entourage spent a couple of hours discussing ways to keep plays safe, and players accountable. The coaches created a statement on the train ride back home, sent it to President Roosevelt, who gave his approval (below), and it was released to the press that next day.

Of course, it took six more months to get those rules in order, through the creation of the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States (predecessor to the NCAA). And it was years before the game of football could claim a death total of zero. But progress was made, slowly but surely. Even though football is a game of yards, in this instance, it was truly a game of inches.

​Theodore Roosevelt

Telegram to Walter Camp , October 10, 1905.

I can not tell you how pleased I am at the way you have taken hold. Now that the matter is in your hands I am more than content to abide by whatever you do.

About the Author

The "founding father" of Historic Experience. Peyton is an actor-historian with over 15 years experience as a John Adams and Theodore Roosevelt interpreter, impersonator, speaker, or whatever descriptor speaks to you. Peyton Dixon is based in central New Jersey and travels across the country bringing American history to life.