I teach a course on the intersection of sport and religion in North America and ask students if there is something in American society that draws us to the violence of football.
Despite the NFL’s best efforts, why hasn’t American football caught on elsewhere in the world, when by most measures it is the most popular game in the United States?
Of course, violence erupts from time to time in other sports – the consequence of an inadvertent beanball toss or collision in the heat of competition. Hockey certainly has its share of violence, but unlike the sport, violence is written into the game of football, as we were reminded when we watched Damar Hamlin crumble in last week’s game between the Bills of Buffalo and the Cincinnati Bengals.
Almost every account of a 19th century football game that I have read includes the words “brutal” or “brutality”.
American football, a military game focused on the conquest and defense of territory, evolved from English rugby in the years following the Civil War. Yale’s Walter Camp, widely regarded as the father of American football, disliked the chaos of the rugby scrum and sought to introduce more strategy into the game. He was eventually able to persuade his Ivy League colleagues to exchanging the scrum for the line of scrimmage, thus allowing for more strategic possibilities and, he argued, a reduction in the violence associated with the game.
Whether the latter worked is debatable. Separating teams between downs may have lessened the anarchy of the scrum, but it also allowed players to build momentum before crashing into their opponents.
Bloodied bodies, displaced teeth, broken and amputated limbs were commonplace. The Journal of the American Medical Association counted 12 football deaths in 1902, and at the end of the 1905 season, the Chicago Tribune listed the season’s “crop of deaths”: 159 seriously injured and 19 dead.
An injury to his son while playing on Harvard’s freshman team prompted President Theodore Roosevelt to summon representatives from Princeton, Yale, and Harvard to the White House. At the meeting, which was attended by the Secretary of State, Roosevelt yelled, “Change the game or give it up!”
College officials responded by forming the Intercollegiate Athletic Association and eventually changing the rules. Among other changes, they eliminated the flying wedge and allowed the forward pass, which made the game slightly safer.
Violence is a big part of the game’s appeal then and now, and American football history suggests that fans and players alike are willing to tolerate injury for the game to continue.
“Football appeals so strongly to the American public because it is a war game,” Charles Dudley Daly, Harvard quarterback and later West Point head coach, remarked in 1921. “The most remarkable similarity exists between the basic tenets of combat in wartime and in football.”
Perhaps this American affinity with militarism is what draws us to football and allows us to tolerate the violence inherent in the game.
Randall Balmer is a professor at Dartmouth College.