A Death Harvest: How Football Was Almost Banned in America

There is no doubt that Football is engrained in American culture. The Super Bowl is the most watched event on an annual basis, Saturdays in the fall come close to religious ceremony (especially for the boys), and old men in small towns across the U.S. still talk about how their high school team should have won state back in '73 (or was it '75?). However, football almost never had the chance to become the game it is today. Back in the early 1900s, newspapers, parents, and universities were calling for the sport to be banned altogether. Believe it or not, all the quotes below are in reference to football. In particular, one game against Harvard and Yale in 1894 garnered international attention for being so violent. The game was coined, "The Bloodbath at Hampden Park."

An ordinary rebellion in the South American or Central American States is as child’s play compared with the destructiveness of [to]day’s game
— New York Times
...A Contest that for brutality is little better than the gladiatorial combats in the arena in ancient Rome
— Beaumont Express
[A] Death Harvest
— Chicago Tribune
More brutalizing than prizefighting, cockfighting, or bullfighting
— Charles Eliot, President of Harvard
The record of French duels for the last dozen years fails to show such a list of casualties as this one game of football
— New York Times
More bloody than some battles that history makes much of
— Wisconsin Journalist

Noses and bones were broken, eyes were gouged, groins were kicked, players were carted off the field, and others laid concussed on the turf. The game between Harvard and Yale received international press with a German newspaper even reporting that players had died and lost eyes during the game. Fortunately all of the players survived, but some were left with career ending injuries. Yale might have won the game that day, but football almost lost it all.

Following the game and gruesome violence displayed, Harvard faculty voted to abolish football altogether. The Harvard President, Charles Eliot, upheld the vote saying, "Football is to academics what bullfighting is to agriculture."

Over the next decade, football faced a constant threat of cancellation due to the nature of violence involved. In 1904, football accounted for at least 18 deaths and 159 injuries across America. Newspapers were reporting on deaths every week of the football season. The next year resulted in at least 19 deaths across the country. Even one of the most macho presidents in American history, Teddy Roosevelt, threatened to put an end to football altogether if the game was not made safer for young players. Only two years before, the president had said, “I believe in rough games and in rough, manly sports. I do not feel any particular sympathy for the person who gets battered about a good deal so long as it is not fatal.” Except football was fatal.

Here's Another Violent Game from American History

With little equipment or padding, football players had little protection. Players often suffered broken noses or limbs, excruciating back injuries or paralyzation and concussions which could lead to death. There also was no concussion protocol that took players out of the game if they had a head injury. Instead, it was just up to their teammates to help them remember which direction their end zone was as stars circled around their heads.

Theodore Roosevelt had seen enough by 1905 and in response to the violence he invited representatives from Harvard, Princeton and Yale to the White House to determine how they could make football a safer sport and preserve the American game. Two months later 62 colleges meet in New York City establishing what was to become the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) all agreeing to make football safer. One of the first rule changes the association made was the introduction of the forward pass in an effort to spread players across the field and reduce collisions. Bradbury Robinson of Saint Louis University threw the first legal forward pass on September 6, 1906. The pass would change the game forever.

Robinson Throwing 1st Forward Pass

Robinson Throwing 1st Forward Pass

Football related deaths declined over the next few years, proving that the changes were working. And so the game of football as we know it today began to evolve. Professional football began to flourish and was on the rise after a 1932 playoff game. Today football still remains one of the most popuar sports if not the most popular sport in America, but it doesn't occur without injury and death. Statistics show that about 12 high school and college football players die due to football related injuries each year. Due to the increasing awareness of lasting injuries and concussions, many of the same sentiments from the early 1900s are being discussed again today regarding football.