Monday, June 1, 2009

Theodore Roosevelt and football (presidential interference part 1)

During the 1905 college football season the loosely regulated violent tactics of the era caused eighteen fatalities; that in a day when varsity squads generally numbered below forty and only a hundred or so colleges played. Football evolved slowly from the same roots as both rugby and soccer. In the early days every team used its own variations on the basic rules. By the later nineteenth century college football possessed a rules committee, presided over by the venerable Walter Camp. But the body met only occasionally and had no full-time staff or punitive power. Effectively, it only acted to prohibit the most flagrantly violent abuses [such as the notorious flying wedge formation] long after public outcry necessitated action.

Excessive violence and brutal tactics caused major injuries and damaged the reputation of the game. Even the Harvard-Yale rivalry, the sport’s premier event, suffered as a result of this harmful publicity. University administrations enforced a two-year hiatus after a disgustingly vicious spectacle in 1894. Through the 1905 season, as young men died unnecessarily on a weekly basis, college Presidents grew sympathetic toward public and press appeals for institutions of higher learning to drop football.

Fortunately for posterity President Theodore Roosevelt saw the great value and national importance of college football and acted to save the game. On October 9th, two days after the highly publicized brutal beating of Robert “Tiny” Maxwell in the Penn-Swarthmore game, Roosevelt hosted a meeting at the White House between the Presidents of Yale, Harvard, and Princeton. The public impetus this meeting gave the cause of reform grew in the following months. After the season, rule changes proposed by the University of Pennsylvania led to larger meetings between the representatives of more colleges in New York. In February 1906 colleges replaced the antiquated rule committee with a new body - the Intercollegiate Athletics Association of the United States (renamed the NCAA in 1910).

This move established a regulatory body to enforce the spirit of amateurism, maintain safety, and promote gentlemanly conduct. For all its ills, American college athletics would likely never have achieved such prominent, lasting, cohesive, and structured success without the NCAA. That organization might never have come into being without the leadership and applied political capital of a President who saw a popular and valuable national sport stranded in controversy and crying out for reform.

The larger-than-life President had been a voracious reader from early childhood. As an adult he routinely read three or four books a day, often amazing guests by taking a new book to bed in an evening and citing lengthy passages from memory at breakfast. Roosevelt mastered the art of taxidermy at the age of nine. He published his first book [a guide to bird species of the Adirondacks] as a Harvard sophomore. His second book, The Naval War of 1812, written his senior year, has only been surpassed as an authority on the subject once in over a century. In all, Roosevelt wrote eighteen books. His letters are filled with references to ancient classics such as Plutarch, Herodotus, or the Greek tragedies.

But for all Roosevelt’s prolific genius, biographers invariably trace the turning point in his life to the genesis of his interest in bodily exercise. As a boy Roosevelt was an awkward, skinny asthmatic and often slept propped up on a large pillow to aid his feeble lungs. His father worried that physical weakness would prevent his intellectually vivacious young son from fulfilling his potential. He challenged twelve year old Theodore in an exchange recorded in his mother’s diary:

“Theodore, you have the mind but not the body, and without the body the mind cannot go as far as it should. You must make your body. It is hard drudgery to make one’s body, but I know you will do it.”

Theodore, who worshipped his father, replied with the indomitable resolve that set him apart from his peers his whole life:

“I’ll make my body.”

A life of physical exertion began that moment. The young Roosevelt started to spend his free time lifting weights. He competed against his cousins in every conceivable event. He developed a love of the outdoors. As an undergraduate Roosevelt spent long periods of his university breaks hiking in the wilds of northern Maine with a famed local woodsman named Bill Sewall. The hardy New Englander initially saw in TR “a thin, pale youngster with bad eyes and a weak heart.”

Sewall quickly came to see that Roosevelt’s emotional and spiritual heart was considerable, more than compensating for lack of natural skill. Sewall also praised the great ease with which the young New York Brahmin spoke to the rough, unschooled men of the Maine wilderness.

Gregariousness and natural charm fueled TR’s political success. He maintained an enormous list of personal correspondents, including the French founder of the modern Olympic Games Pierre de Coubertin. One exchange of letters between the two men in 1903 discussed the importance of exercise for public health and education. Roosevelt especially advocated rigorous exercise for boys. He sensitively and wisely condemned the practice of forcing boys into any sports they disliked as harmful to mental development. The purpose was to build up men, not break them down. Nor was the purpose to triumph for the sake of it and make an idol of success at games.

Roosevelt acknowledged to de Coubertin:

“I was never a champion at anything… I have met English officers to whom polo, racing, football and baseball were far more absorbing than their professional duties. In such case athleticism becomes a mere harmful disease.”

Despite such strong reservations, Roosevelt saw physical exercise as the great test of a man, as well as a great leveler. Competition formed and made a man, causing him to face adversity. Roosevelt felt these realities as a boxer at Harvard where he reached the 133lb class championship bout as a junior in 1879. Fighting without his glasses, Roosevelt compensated for poor eyesight with sheer tenacity and desire. Despite facing a much stronger man and receiving a broken nose, Roosevelt willfully refused to concede and went the full distance.

TR did not need the accolades of championships. He believed that physical development served the greater purpose of fitting a man for his real work. He once wrote to his son Theodore Jr., then a junior at Groton Academy:


“In my regiment probably nine-tenths of the men were better horsemen than I was, and probably two-thirds were better shots. But nobody else could command them as I could.”

He wrote these words to affirm his son’s decision to play football, despite a size disadvantage and a recent injury. Roosevelt viewed necessary injuries as positive hardship that would form character. If, on the other hand, football threatened to produce personal bitterness of any form, the president instructed his son to abstain. The central point was to see Ted Jr. master a challenge and not to be mastered:

“I am delighted to have you play football. I believe in rough, manly sports. I do not believe in them if they degenerate to the sole end of ones existence.”

TR never played football but enthusiastically followed Harvard’s fledgling team as an undergraduate in the late 1870s. Later he continued to follow Harvard’s progress, always believing that winning was important, but less so than virtue and character. After team captain, Norman Winslow Cabot followed a tradition of removing the player’s letter ‘H’ from their jerseys after the Yale loss in 1897 Roosevelt wrote to correct the man’s perspective:

“Our men had done well; not quite as well as we had hoped, but still well; and I think it as great a mistake to show undue sensitivity in defeat as it is to be indifferent about it.”

Somehow the snobbish New York society man and socially Progressive democracy advocate in Roosevelt mixed evenly. But with regard to sports, the democrat always shone more brightly. A 1906 letter to fellow Harvardian Owen Wister, who despite growing up in Pennsylvanian heavily romanticized the south in his writing, challenged him firmly:

“I do not know a white man in the south who is a good a man as Booker Washington today. You say you would not like to take orders from a Negro yourself. If you had played football at Harvard anytime in the last fifteen years you would have had to. And you would not have minded in the least, for during that time Lewis has been a field captain and a coach.”

Roosevelt referred to William H. Lewis, the first ever black college football player who made the Walter-Camp All-America list as a Harvard center in 1892. Lewis went on to a remarkable career as a football coach, writer, lawyer and civil rights activist in an era when opportunities for black Americans were severely limited. Roosevelt took pride in the fact that Lewis was a Harvard man. He praised a game that placed men on a level field, demanding mutual respect. Decades ahead of his time, TR perceived the power of inclusion football possessed as a symbol and tool in bringing down destructive racial barriers.

Roosevelt’s profoundly balanced view of athletics celebrated competition and castigated idleness, but he viewed a life of public leadership as far more important. Athletic prowess was to him a means to an end. He used his body always as his father had directed him, to carry his incredible mind. The indomitable combination of TR’s body and mind enjoyed such unceasing success that he learned to expect progress and triumph in every situation. Believing that self-discipline, resolve, and personal virtue could solve any problem he emerged as an ardent reformer. TR never threw babies out with bathwater.

When TR considered football in 1905 he saw a violent and often over-emphasized game. He also saw an integral link to American identity. Its rugged nature and intricate connection to America’s most iconic colleges made football too precious to lose. TR had already worked to restore the Army-Navy rivalry in 1899. The Secretaries of War and Navy had forbidden the academies to play road games after a very public and embarrassing near duel between a Rear-Admiral and a Brigadier-General in 1893. The five year break remains the longest in series history. As Assistant Navy Secretary TR urged Secretary of War Russell Alexander Alger to allow the rivalry to be restored. Thanks significantly to him the annual fixture resumed and quickly became the most vivid symbol of college football’s uniquely American character.

Understandably, Roosevelt felt aggrieved as the spiraling violence of 1905 far surpassed the necessary roughness he approved and led many college administrations to consider dropping football. He feared that a perfectly redeemable national treasure might be lost unnecessarily. TR publically resisted those Presidents who leaned towards the easy option of abolition and praised those with the foresight and courage to approach reform. In the fall of 1906 praised a speech by Yale President Arthur Twinning Hadley which condemned “the growth of luxury in the American colleges.” Hadley’s contention that lives without challenge and adversity produce self-entitled, weak-willed, useless citizens resonated with TR.


In an address to the Harvard student Union in February 1907 he extolled the value of “the athletic spirit” as profoundly formative and “essentially democratic.” Roosevelt warned:

“Our chief interest should not lie in the great champions in sports. On the contrary, our concern should be most of all to widen the base to encourage in every way healthy rivalry which shall give to the largest number of students the chance to partake.”

(One wonders what venomous ire President Roosevelt – a great supporter of the Anti-Trust Act - would have poured upon the exclusionary, anti-democratic practices of the BCS cartel?)

TR warned Harvard students of the potentially dire consequences colleges risked if they dropped football:

“We cannot afford to turn out college men who shrink from physical effort or from a little pain. In any republic courage is a prime necessity for the average citizen if he is to be a good citizen.”

Today the NCAA’s highest honor is the Theodore Roosevelt award, recognizing men and women who compete in college athletics before going on to become nationally recognized leaders in significant non-athletic fields. Past winners include four US Presidents.

Coaches often cite the character forming qualities of football. At times these articles of faith become cliché and can even be used to justify a nexus of greed, obsession, and uncivil conduct that is anything but beneficial. But we cannot surrender our most cherished and outstanding game to those who lack scruples, character, or courage. Regardless of its potential abuses and its penchant for over-emphasis, college football can and should teach good qualities to players and fans alike – loyalty, perseverance, endurance, collective identity, collegiate spirit, educational zeal… These make our game great.

When we see corrupt, cowardly, greedy men who spurn inclusion and shy away from genuine competition hijacking a national treasure we should join President Roosevelt in his unflinching response and cry “Reform!”

(Sources: Wiki, William Lewis; Philly Army-Navy site; Scott McQuilkin and Ron Smith, Flying Wedge, Journal of Sports History; Wiki, TR award; Edmund Morris, Rise of TR; Roosevelt, Strenuous Life; Letters and speeches of TR)

1 comment:

  1. Very informative. Very well done.

    ReplyDelete