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  • Writer's pictureMichael Doolittle

How US football became so violent: Part 1

US colleges modeled the rules for what became US football on several versions of soccer and rugby that were imported from England. Interestingly, the choices made in the 1800s created a game that is much more dangerous to play than soccer or rugby. This process took place over many years. Accounts of Oxford and Cambridge students published in The Sporting News in the 1820s offer some early clues about this puzzle and point to a connection between hunting sports, violent hazing, and American football.

In a parallel to today, some students at that time cared more for their extra-curricular activities than they did their studies. While sports were played, at this time hunting was the most important activity. An Oxford student from Christ Church College looked back on his university time from 1820-21. Though his servant kept his room, brought him tea and cleaned his clothes, he found the latin and greek curriculum was sometimes tedious and got in the way of his hunting. (The Sporting Magazine XX. N.S— No. 123. December 1827. Some Farther Passages In The Life of An ‘Oxford Scholar,’ During His Second Year’s Residence at Alma Mater.” Pg. 69)

“It is utterly impossible, in such a place as Oxford, that all the Under-graduates can be studious: those who do not read must do something else; and how can a young man of rank and fortune spend the day better, when not reading, than following a pack of fox-hounds?” (pg. 70) How, indeed! He complains that the tutors frowned and punished gambling, but “hunting is the best preservative I know against the vice of gaming: it requires early hours and regular living. The excitement and fatigue attending a good day’s sport with a pack of fox-hounds, obliges a man to retire to his bed betimes.” (Pg. 70) From his account, he pushed hard against the rules and his rooms became a hub for large number of his classmates who gathered to read the Sporting Magazine, consider the odds of upcoming horse races, discuss novels and enjoy “a decanter of Port, ditto Sherry and Madeira, with a bottle of cool Claret ready to be tapped.” (Pg. 78)

Cambridge students also reminisced about hunting days, and poked some fun at Oxford as well. One wrote, “In nothing do we so far surpass our Oxford friends as in the excellence of our hacks. Jordan’s and Baxter’s stalls were full of horses, scarcely any one of which was to be had under ‘three figures:’” (“Memoranda Cantabrigiensia.— No. II” The Sporting Magazine XXI, N.S— No. 127. April, 1828 ), Pg. 425). He wrote that “most of the shooting round Cambridge was nothing less than decided and unequivocal poaching. The Trumpington and Ditton manors were most infested by our unlicensed depredations.” (“Memoranda Cantabrigiensia, , 426.) Many students kept horses and dogs. It was clear that many students relished sports as well. “When bad weather hindered our out-of-door amusements, my friend Harry Angelo’s room was a great attraction: he had some excellent fencers in his school in 1823-4… then for sparring, you might amuse yourself for half an hour with Bill Eales, who would give you a rehearsal which might be put in practice on any evening you chose, if you took a stroll over the Market Hill after dark.” (Pg. 427) Over the hill you would hopefully find some townsmen looking for a scrap or row.

He recalls going home one evening and seeing that “parties of five or six, both ‘gown’ and ‘town’ were parading abreast, with the peculiar and not-to-be mistaken air which provokes a fight, each in hopes of the opposite party commencing aggression.” They were heading for “the trysting place” and he “hooked on to a line of my friends who were bound thither, and on our arrival all was ripe for riot.” The chaotic scene at the town center featured townsmen, “‘Cavaliers and Roundheads’ [who] eyed each other as if measuring the strength of a future opponent— Proctors and Bull-dogs, Deans, Tutors, and Big-wigs, all in motion— and ‘name and College’ instantly demanded of any one who shewed any symptom of disorderly conduct.” A sort of riot called a “rush” took place and the highlight seemed to be when a sea of people created a living boxing ring for a friend, “a sore-length-wiry ten stone man, a hard rider, a quick sparrer, and the best oar on the river”, who was successful in “manoeuvring his man under a lamp, and, whenever favored by the reflection of the light, banging ‘one two’ into his face (a pretty broad one), and with the most dismal effect.” Later, the boxing match was broken up and “another general melee occurred.” When he saw a friend in danger, our correspondent screamed “‘gown, gown’ most lustily” and charged “the man nearest him as best I might.” Looking back, he writes “Thank God, he (his opponent) got an infernal back eye during the night’s amusements!” (429)

This idea of a “rush” entered into our vocabulary as the annual initiation for fraternities. In addition, this idea of a “rush”, or organized physical confrontation was brought to US schools and became a tradition at Yale and Harvard, where the annual fall “rush” which featured organized fights between grades came to be known as “Bloody Monday” was prized by students as a way of building class unity. This tradition heavily influenced the process of how the games of soccer and rugby were modified to become American football. This violent streak ran from Oxford and Cambridge, to Harvard and Yale, and then was incorporated into our game of football, ultimately creating a game that was much more dangerous than rugby.

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