Matt Chaney: ‘Safe’ Football Failed in 1880s, Talking Points Lived On

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

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 Footballfrom his Four Walls Publishing in 2009Chaney’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.

Email or visit the website for more information.


Matt Chaney: ‘Safe’ Football Failed in 1880s, Talking Points Lived On — 4 Comments

  1. Matt Chaney

    Hey Brian:

    Thank you for reading and I appreciate your recollections. Takes me back to same period, 1970s-80s, learning to be hammer and not the nail in football, blasting head-on, eyes wide open in polycarbonate helmets and rigid facemask. You make great point about leather helmets, players then–guys rocked each other in those things too. Good video evidence exists of game collisions and headgear from 1910-up, and you can see how players keep narrowing to purely head-on, zero-degree smashing, which is consistent in film after 1960. The TBI maze was really on after that. Since the ’60s players have blown-up each other in hard-shells and facemask, all levels. Seems indeed that much of CTE is about shelf life, exposures, in this crazy game. There are two terrible cases of young guys here in Missouri-Kansas, college players in DII and IAA, who were found badly diseased postmortem. Each had about 15 to 17 years in helmets and was a big hitter. My prayers for all who suffer so, and their families.

    Looks like you were at SC with a late friend of mine, Brian: The incredible Steve Courson. Man, we miss him for the brain-disease fight right now. Steve was completely in tune with the Webster Family case vs. Bell Fund when he died in 2005. He was totally ready to take this all on. I was just working on muscle drugs in football, then, but Steve knew the real elephant in the room, brain injuries and disorder. Steroids seem quaint now.
    And glad you asked about injury information in the 1880s. See below a sampling of the info bits of what I’ve found in 1889, for example. A margin is certainly to be erroneous, being news data, but it gives you an idea of what was happening then in the sport.

    The infection factor was terrifying then. No penicillin yet, and you could die sooner or much later from an injury. Years later, in fact. The problem for every bone fracture was the looming threat of infection.
    I recently spoke with a pathologist here in Missouri, MD and county medical examiner, regarding the inadequate care for trauma in America that really carried into Vietnam Era. Many of the ’60s deaths, for example, wouldn’t happen now.

    However, the doctor and I discussed 1880s to 1910s. Primitive trauma care, basically none if your were paralyzed and bedridden; death was at hand. The doctor considered the fact we now have some five million players, 95 percent juvenile, and like 100,000 injuries now requiring surgery. Even more bone fractures.
    He said if we took today’s players and placed them in 1905 medical care, thousands upon thousands would die of infection alone.

    Take care, Brian, and fellas.
    Matt Chaney

    1889 sampling of football injuries reported in newspapers
    1889.01.09 ‘The Football Malady’ knee, MD in Scientific American
    1889.01.09 collision knee ‘shock’ esp. in rush line, MD says Scientific American
    1889.01.29 ‘peritonitis’ kills teen month after FB knockdown, Camden NJ
    Theodore Heffline, a 17-year-old lad of 527 Washington street, Camden [NJ], was fatally injured in a football “rush” on Christmas Day, and he died Wednesday night. While struggling to reach the ball young Heffline was run into with great force by a fellow player, a youth of about his own age, and knocked down, his head striking the curbstone. Death resulted from peritonitis. Heffline’s parents have exonerated the boy who knocked their son down, and refuse to divulge his name. The county physician does not consider any action necessary on his part.
    1889.02.08 arm dislocation for schoolboy in Shelby NC
    1889.02.13 leg fracture for boy FBer at Hutchinson KS
    1889.03.05 death, ‘fatal disease of FB last season’ at Arnot PA
    John Murray, a promising young man of Arnot, died a few days ago after a protracted sickness. He was a member of the foot-ball team of that place, and is said to have contracted the fatal disease while engaged in a game last season.
    1889.03.11 compound frac of ankle for UNC FBer in Raleigh
    1889.03.12 leg frac for boy FBer in Salt Lake City UT
    1889.03.30 leg-frac FBer remains hospitalized in Newark NJ
    The members of the Alma and O. N. T. football clubs of Newark, have decided to play a game at Kearney on April 6, for the benefit of Frank Britchford, the Alma half back, who received a broken leg in the contest with the Patterson Rangers last week. Britchford is in the Newark City Hospital.
    1889.04.01 ‘British football shows appalling 8 deaths, 5 serious injuries’
    1889.04.09 broken teeth, lip laceration for FBer at Arnot PA
    1889.09.22 three ‘carry off’ injuries in Yale scrimmaging, New Haven

    NEW HAVEN, Conn., September 21–During a football match to-day between the Yale University eleven and a picked team from different classes, three men had to be carried from the field, and several other players were quite badly hurt. Harvey, holdback, of University eleven, was roughly tackled, and a severely sprained ankle resulted. He was carried from the field in great pain, and it will be several weeks before he can play again.

    1889.09.30 collarbone frac for college FBer at Normal IL
    889.09.30 football leg injury leaves world-champ skater bedridden, Newburg NY
    NEWBURG, Sept. 29–Joe Donoghue, of this city, was to have sailed for Christiana, Norway, October 12th, to participate in the races throughout Europe this winter, but a fall, which resulted in serious injury to his leg, received while playing foot-ball, will necessitate the postponement of his trip. He is now confined to bed.
    1889.10.04 sternum fracture ‘incapacitated’ Holden, Harvard great in 1887
    –Harvard football great Bert Holden would die at 47, highly accomplished but beset with health problems some doctor(s) believed to be cancer… [note that so-called cancer or ‘tuberculosis of the bone’ killed many players of the period, years after their injuries, for lack of infection treatment and lingering damage; I have an 1885 report of an old Irish soccer player, kicked in leg 50 years before, who finally died of the injury, doctors concluded in Philadelphia]
    Capt. Holden, the best football player Harvard ever had, is about five feet eight inches tall. He is of a very stocky build. During the Fall of ’87 Price, the Princeton half-back, struck him with his knees and broke the sternum of Holden’s chest. Holden has been incapacitated from play ever since. He is training the present Harvard football team. He graduated [mineralogy science] in ’88.
    –links on Albert F. Holden, 1866-1913

    1889.10.13 ‘ugly cuts’ as teammates collide heads, NY Athletic Club
    1889.10.13 leg frac for Princeton FBer tended by mom nurse
    1889.10.20 four injured and removed in Princeton-Stevens Institute game, NJ
    1889.10.27 two disabled of ‘severe body’ jolts, Brooklyn clubbers
    1889.10.31 boy ‘severely injured’ by chin kick at Parsons KS
    1889.10.31 knee, eye, head injuries in Yale-Penn
    1889.11.01 nose, knee injuries for Lancaster players at Carlisle PA
    1889.11.03 ‘several players injured but not seriously’ Lehigh v Columbia in NYC
    1889.11.06 ‘ugly scars, bruised heads’ of Yale v Crescents in Brooklyn
    1889.11.06 facial laceration for Bull of Crescents v Yale
    1889.11.07a fans attack Penn FBers at Easton, ‘severe’ injury of kicks by spectators

    EASTON, Pa., Nov. 7–The Lafayette foot ball team defeated the University of Pennsylvania eleven here yesterday by a score of 10 to 8. Result was due to the field not being roped off. Crowd invaded the players’ territory, got in the way of the Pennsylvania runners and kicked the players of that team when down. This has been the history of the Pennsylvania-Lafayette games at Easton for three years. The Pennsylvania football authorities last night took the step of refusing to ever against play at Easton, but offered to meet the Lafayette team in all the games it wanted on neutral ground. One Pennsylvania player (Dewey) was so severely injured by the kicks of the crowd that a physician had to be called on the field.

    1889.11.07 injury closes eye, ‘distinguishes’ UVA FBer
    1889.11.08 ‘don’t ram groin or twist man’s neck’ NY Evening World scolds
    1889.11.10 knee injury, crutches for Gildersleeve of Columbia
    1889.11.10 illness sidelines several Princeton players
    1889.11.10 Cornell FBer KOed, carried off unconscious v Yale
    1889.11.13 kidney, TBI, knee, arm, leg injuries for Cornell v Yale
    1889.11.13d ‘Thayer struck on head, sees double’ Ithaca report says
    1889.11.15 severe eye, jaw injuries for ND FBers at Northwestern
    1889.11.16 FBer’s frac elbow likely maimed for life, Bloomington Pantagraph IL
    1889.11.16 ‘bloody noses the rule’ URochester v club in Albany NY
    1889.11.17 ‘bleeding noses both sides’ & knee sprain in club title match Brooklyn
    1889.11.17 injuries sideline three for Wesleyan & QB Graves for Yale
    1889.11.17 injury, ‘spasms, recovery’ for UMich frosh in class game Ann Arbor

    ANN ARBOR, November 16–(Special)–The freshmen and sophomores resumed their football struggle this afternoon, and after continuing the same tactics of last week until dark without either side gaining a goal, the game was postponed until next Saturday. During the playing Metcalf, ’93, was kicked and injured, throwing him into spasms. He was taken to the hospital, but recovered and was taken home.

    1889.11.18 ‘number of noses, eyes, faces’ injured in Harvard-Princeton
    1889.11.18 eye injury for Trafford of Harvard, then plays v Yale
    1889.11.18 Penn QB injured, bedridden months, MD says Devery, the quarter back of the University of Pennsylvania football team, will not play again this season. He is confined to his bed, suffering from the injuries received in last Saturday’s game, and his physician says that he will probably be compelled to remain there for two months.
    1889.11.18 two kneecap, one rupture, hosp. injuries for Lehigh v Lafayette
    1889.11.19 TBI for Harvard’s Cumnock, flattened ‘insensible’
    1889.11.19 Warren flattened, waterbucket wakeup, RTP, Harvard-Princeton
    1889.11.19 three injured, one ‘badly’ for St. John’s of Annapolis, UVir game
    1889.11.19 Harvard Saxe KOed v Princeton, helped off field
    1889.11.19 injuries for half of Harvard lineup after Princeton
    1889.11.20 boy FBer falls on train tracks, needs arm amputation

    Brodhead WI —A boy was very seriously hurt at Brodhead this morning by the Milwaukee train. He was playing football with several companions around the depot and ran in front of the train. He fell on the track the train passing over his left arm, crushing it so badly that it is thought amputation will be necessary. Dr. St. John, the company surgeon, was telegraphed for but was unable to go.

    1889.11.21 severely injured FBer hopeful for recovery, Rolla School of Mines MO
    1889.11.22 frac nose, frac thumb for class FBers at Cumber Valley Normal College in PA
    1889.11.23 shoulder, ankle, two leg injuries of Yale starters, sub injured; all to play
    1889.11.23 TBI still dogs Graves, Yale QB injured v Wesleyan
    1889.11.24 ‘cut faces, bruised heads, eye injuries of most all players’ Penn-Lafayette
    1889.11.24 ‘sprained legs, arms ordinary’ Penn-Lafayette
    1889.11.24 ear ‘half torn off’ for Mackey of Lafayette v Penn
    1889.11.24 nose frac, jaw injury for Williams of Lafayette v Penn
    1889.11.24 infection of scratch kills English FBer, Exeter College
    Gerald Evans, an undergraduate of Exeter College, died in the college from blood poisoning, brought upon him because while playing foot ball he had received a slight scratch on the face.
    1889.11.24 ‘considerable bleeding, bruises, contusions’ in FB game, Shreveport LA
    1889.11.24 TBI-lingering Saxe plays for Harvard v Yale
    889.11.24 frac ribs for Lake Forest College FBer, Illinois
    1889.11.24 KO for Harvard practice player; he retires

    Foxhall Keene, son of James R., is a well-known horseman, a polo player, a runner after the hounds and an athlete generally, but to his sorrow he has found that he can’t play football as football is played to-day. he went up to Harvard to practice with the University team a few games and was knocked out.

    1889.11.26 ‘severely wrenched knee’ Yaler Wurtemberg plays on at QB
    1889.11.26 FBer ‘stunned momentarily’ by face jab v YMCA Omaha NE
    1889.11.28 ‘paresis’ for Ames, ‘badly sprained skull’ Cowan of Princeton
    1889.11.28 leg frac, backbone frac, neck frac for Yale, NY Evening World reports
    1889.11.29 ‘concussion of brain dangerous injury’ YMCA JRs

    Orange NJ During a game of football yesterday afternoon at Orange, N.J., between the Young Men’s Christian Association Juniors and a picked team, Frederick F. Knowles was caught in a scrimmage and knocked senseless. Medical help was promptly at hand and he was conveyed home, where he lies in a critical condition. Concussion of the brain is feared.

    1889.11.29 two Wesleyans injured, one ‘insensible’ but play on v Penn in NYC
    1889.11.29a ‘seriously injured’ second Dupont player v Georgetown in DC
    1889.11.29a frac kneecap, ankle tendons for George of Princeton v Yale
    1889.11.29a jaw, nose, more injuries in Lehigh-Navy game
    1889.11.29b ‘Anderwild temporarily knocked out’ for Wesleyan v Penn
    1889.11.29c two ‘disabled’ in Butler-Purdue at YMCA Park, Indianapolis
    1889.11.29 injury on ‘violent tackle’ Detroit AC v Pitt alumni in MI
    1889.11.30 ‘knockless senseless several hours’ recovering week later

    Wm Jewell College MO – G.W. Kelly has received word from his son Charles, who is attending the William Jewell college, to the effect, that in playing foot ball last week, he came near being killed, but is now on fair way to recovery. He was kicked behind the ear by a high kicker in a game of foot ball and was knocked senseless for several hours.

    1889.12.01b nose & mouth bleed for disqual FBer Yale v Harvard frosh

    , CONN., November 30–The football season closed here this afternoon in a blood strife between the Yale and Harvard freshmen. …
    The ball had been in play about 15 minutes, when Lowry was ruled off for slugging, and he retired from the field with blood streaming from his nose and mouth.
    1889.12.01 14-yr-old FBer dies ‘effect of kick’ in Phillipsburg NJ
    Howard Post, of Phillipsburg, N. J., aged 14, died from the effect of a kick received while playing football.
    1889.12.01 ‘Hoxton badly hurt’ for club v Kendall in Alexandria VA
    1889.12.02 ‘hemorrhage relapse’ for Cornell FBer injured v Yale
    1889.12.03 ‘broken arms, limbs, reported from all sections’ Lawrence KS paper notes
    1889.12.04 frac leg, leg sprains, eye, nose injuries in Harvard-Williams game
    1889.12.05 Nievert ‘still critical’ after FB injury, Rolla School of Mines MO
    1889.12.14 ‘serious’ abdomen injury expected to heal, WyoSeminary PA
    1889.12.19 ‘fifty-one serious accidents’ among seven FB teams, unattributed blurb says

    Matt Chaney
    Writer, editor, publisher and teacher
    A former college football player

  2. Brian Nemeth

    Great reading! I remember playing 9th grade football against our rival circa 1969. They wore leather helmets we wore Riddell. I think we severely damaged 9 players! On the bus ride home, we talked about how could someone let us play them with that gear? We were trained killers. Trained to hit with our heads and damage ball carriers. We even designed a neck collar out of towels and tape so we could bull our necks against our shoulder pads to inflict more damage to runners.

    After playing 6 years on defense I was moved to tight end. I played 5 years and ended up in the NFL hitting like I was trained. Well, I hit a blitzing linebacker and crushed two discs in my back paralyzing my left foot! How did everyone forget about the carnage with leather? They were not even trained like us or were as big and fast as us! This “settlement” will make us disappear as before, because there’s too much money involved.

    Currently, my head is getting so bad. I am pissed that I loved to hit so hard. Yeah, it got me to the pros but the sacrifice now is terrible. I’ve compared our training to many other players’ schools and years and it’s like the late sixties to late nineties seemed to be the worst as far as head-on licks are concerned.

    What’s worse is the fans really don’t have a clue what really happens on the field. Is this settlement a blessing? I only hope it helps players who wrecked themselves without being a star or only played a few seasons. I wonder if there exists any injury stats from year-to-year to fit it into your research? I wish I had your knowledge going in, pal – I would have stayed with baseball for sure!

    Thanks for the history lesson.

    Brian J. Nemeth
    1976 draft from South Carolina
    to San Francisco 49ers
    Just one more unknown TE

  3. Don Brady

    Matt has successfully conducted historic football research via dusting off, and poring & sifting through many late 1880’s and 1890’s newspaper clips / articles RE: The illusion of creating a safer football.

    Matt’s research discoveries reveal the then-infant football landscape was strewed with attempts to soften and camouflage the violent nature of football and its numerous brain and non-brain casualties of this gladiator-type activity.

    Tragically, these centuries-old “whitewashing” talking points have remained interwoven into football lore through to the present time.

    Don Brady, PhD, PsyD, NCSP
    Licensed Clinical Psychologist

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