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  • Writer's pictureMichael Doolittle

Death and football in1905

The NCAA was borne out of a profound crisis in football. At that time, football rules were very different from today. In the 1880s Yale’s Walter Camp had been instrumental in creating rules. You could score a point with a safety, four points with a touchdown, two points from a goal after a touchdown (today’s extra point) and five points from a goal from the field (modern day field goal). The games didn’t include the forward pass and were a mix between the modern game, rugby, and soccer.

A picture from the 1903 Dartmouth-Brown game gives a sense of the early game.

The players are in what looks like a rugby scrum, the man with the ball in the middle of all the players from both teams who have lunged into each other and are trying to push the pile of humanity towards their opponents’ goal line. Four players are wearing thin leather helmets, one appears to be wearing a ski cap and the rest have no protection aside from padded shoulders in their jerseys that look like 1980s shoulder pads in blazers. Tactics tended towards having as many men as possible bunch together in a sort of flying wedge, running at top speed to run over the opposition and clear a path for the ball carrier behind.

Brutality seemed to be part of the attraction.

In his book, Football: The Ivy League Origins of an American Obsession, Mark Bernstein paints a vivid picture of the brutal game. A New York Times reporter at the Princeton-Yale game in 1876 gives a sense. “The Yale men were not in a pleasant humor, and the Princeton men were not feeling particularly amiable. The ground was like a dish of butter and that contributed to the general tumblefication.” Later, describing the tackle of Yale runner, the writer continues, “his blue stockings described sulphurous circles in the air and he plunged headlong into the mud, plowing a big furrow in it with his nose, while the Princeton men jumped as high as they could and came down on him with all the weight of their avoirdupois and theology.”

Fans appear to have enjoyed the savage nature of the game as well. For the first time Yale Students joyfully sang the song “Undertaker” at the 1900 Harvard game.


More work for the undertaker,

Another little job for the casket maker,

In the local cemetery they are very very busy

On a brand new grave---

No hope for Harvard

But brutality caught up to the game in 1905. A review of contemporary newspaper accounts by Tom Benjey documents that at least 20 athletes were killed playing the game in 1905. Causes of death ranged from cerebral hemorrhaging, fractured spines, ruptured blood vessels, having a broken rib driven through the heart and internal injuries.

For a time, it appeared that the game would be banned. Indeed, NYU, Columbia and Union all terminated their football programs. President Teddy Roosevelt helped mediate a football reform process, which led to changes such as the forward pass and rules preventing the sorts of mass plays that had proved so dangerous. There is some debate about Roosevelt’s motives, and whether the existence of football was threatened. A clue might be found in the last of his five-point reform agenda, where Roosevelt writes, “It would be a real misfortune to lose so manly and vigorous a game as football, and to avert such a possibility the college authorities in each college should see to it that the game in that college is clean.”

This statement sums up the structure of the NCAA. The NCAA sets the overall rules, but it’s up to the individual schools to enforce them. If violations are found, the NCAA will investigate and at times punish schools. The NCAA doesn’t want to police the rules because the schools have voluntarily joined the NCAA and can leave. The NCAA’s budge is primarily funded by the March Madness Men’s and Women’s National Basketball Tournament and the College Football Playoff National. If the NCAA is too heavy handed, then the elite teams that help bring in all of the money could leave the NCAA and explode the whole system.

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