Our friend, Matt Chaney, continues to document the long history of football (and concussions) with this detailed piece on how the coverup on injuries has been going on since the 1800’s! Some serious reading for the holidays!
‘Safe’ Football Failed in 1880s, Talking Points Lived On
December 21, 2016
Copyright ©2016 for historical arrangement
American football ‘experts’ developed timeless promises for preventing injuries 130 years ago but failed, repeatedly, to solve anything
Brutality of American football was under control and diminishing, game leaders declared by the late 1880s. Problems of injury and “slugging” were basically resolved, winnowed down to isolated incidents through a decade of reform efforts, they said.
Football advocates agreed. “The game is as safe as any outdoor game can well be… in the larger colleges,” wrote Alexander Johnston, Princeton professor and football booster. Johnston’s how-to football article for Century Illustrated Magazine in 1887 was complemented with artist renderings of Foul Tackle and Fair Tackle for instructive contrast. “With good physical condition in the players, the requisite training, and suitable grounds, the game is not only one of the best of outdoor sports, but one of the safest,” Prof. Johnston assured readers.
College football leadership amounted to a few young men, some playing yet. They said problems were resolved after multiple “reform” efforts. Rule-makers for the Intercollegiate Football Association now exercised “almost sole control over the general conduct of the players upon the field,” promised Walter Camp, the IFA committee leader, referee, Yale co-coach and football writer. “We shall see a much more quiet [scrimmage] line and a much steadier style of playing, characterized by clever running but sharper tackling. Captains will train their men to keep their tempers.”
American tackle football originated from the English games of “kicking” and rugby. The Chicago Tribune depicted brutal play as past-tense, eliminated. “Centuries ago it was war on a small scale. Time has civilized the game. American college rules, modifications of the Rugby game, made it less clumsy and more adroit.”
American football had become scientific, refined by experts like Camp, according to game advocates in news and education. “A great advance has been made in the method of playing the game within the last ten years or so,” stated a national news report, “and in consequence the liability of accident has been greatly reduced, while the interest has not been detracted from in the least.”
Football and its social scene marked “the rage” among popular “amusements,” booming as mass entertainment. But safe field contact and injury reduction didn’t materialize as the 1888 season played out in November.
Football critics roiled again, detecting nil improvement despite new rules; they saw violence only heightening on playing fields. When violations, malicious assaults and injuries marred a Thanksgiving game in New York City, national ridicule kicked back on rule-maker Camp, who refereed the melee.
“Several Men were Laid Out,” headlined The New York Sun, in aftermath of Wesleyan College versus Pennsylvania at the Polo Grounds. “There was rough and bitter play.” The football spectacle “was the roughest, most reckless, dangerous and unskillful game which has been played here for several years…,” remarked The New York Tribune, “an exhibition of how much twenty-two vigorous young athletes will endure for the name and fame of their college… one man was disqualified when there should have been half a dozen.”
Leg chops, body blows, neck tackles and head shots abounded between Wesleyan and Penn. Players were clad in canvas jackets, knee breeches, skull caps, and shoes with steel spikes. They exchanged head-butts, shoulder-rams, elbowing, shoving, pushing, grabbing, tossing, kneeing, kicking, stomping and punching. Players suffered limbs battered and mangled, tissue punctures, facial lacerations, bloody noses, “concussion” and more symptoms of traumatic brain injury [TBI], according to news reports. Most casualties didn’t leave the game, carrying on dazed, hurt and agitated.
The New York Times oozed disgust, relaying that “both teams endeavored to find out which possessed the most force as battering rams, and they were ramming away most cheerfully when time was called, at 4:45, just as it was growing too dark to see the ball except at close quarters. The referee was Walter Camp of Yale, and the umpire was M. Hodge of Princeton. Both of these gentlemen escaped unscathed.”
Camp, the acclaimed “Father of Football” at age 29, typically steered press coverage instead of taking flak. He deflected blame for the Thanksgiving debacle, blaming Wesleyan and Penn players for failure to “tackle properly.” And controversy abated, again, for gladiatorial sport at colleges.
II. 1800s ‘Foot ball’ Spreads America, Players Adopt Rugby Style, and Fans Flock
The American story of athlete-turned-politician was a headliner in 1843, embodied by Joseph R. Williams, Whig Party congressional candidate from Michigan. Williams was a Harvard alumnus known for “his swiftness of foot and his dexterity in kicking the football on the college green,” newspapers touted. An opinion-page commentator saluted the shrewd political promotion—Williams as athletic candidate—calling it “a new point of distinction in the character of a public man.” Indeed, agrarian America admired manly physical prowess, regarded higher than a college education by most folks, Harvard notwithstanding.
“Kicking football” captured American fancy by outset of the Victorian Era, decades ahead of rugby’s emergence in the states. All ages enjoyed the “footie” game later known as soccer and primarily for its participatory experience, the exhilarating movement, rather than spectating. Whenever a round Goodyear ball appeared for an outdoor gathering, ranging from kids in a street to adults at a lawn party, people sprang to chase and kick the rubber. Public awareness of football emanated from the Northeast, spreading westward and southward via carriers like newspapers, railroads, military posts, churches and schools.
You can read the rest of this post over on Chaney’s Blog – click HERE.
Copyright ©2016 for historical arrangement by Matthew L. Chaney
Matt Chaney is a writer, researcher and consultant on public issues in sport, specializing in American football for three decades. Chaney, an MA in media studies, is a former college football player and coach whose books include Spiral of Denial: Muscle Doping in American Football, from his Four Walls Publishing in 2009. Chaney’s study for graduate thesis, co-published with the University of Central Missouri in 2001, analyzed print sport-media coverage of anabolic substances in football from 1983-1999.
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