Sunday, June 28, 2009

Orange Juice

Orenthal James Simpson grew up in a deprived neighborhood outside of San Francisco. His father left his family when he was a toddler. As an under-nourished baby he developed rickets. Amazingly the bent-toed little infant grew into a keen athlete and became a stand-out back at Galileo High School, just blocks from the waterfront. Pac Eight schools quickly became aware of his abilities, but they were also aware of his poor grades.

OJ matriculated at San Francisco Community College in 1965 to play football and work on his academic eligibility. At the end of his first year he qualified for Arizona State and under heavy pressure from Sun Devils coaches nearly headed for Tempe. He even considered Utah State at one point, but in his heart the Bay Area stud knew he wanted to follow local hero Gary Beban (then an all-American quarterback with the Buins) to Los Angeles. The ambitious Simpson set his sights on USC and with much encouragement from John McKay’s staff he spent one more year in San Francisco. When he finally became eligible he had only two years remaining and needed to make an immediate impression.

There was little doubt about OJ's talent. He left San Francisco as the all-time junior college rush leader with 2,552 yards and 54 TDs in just two years. But McKay wanted to know just how much USC could build around him and whether the lithe 6”1’ 202lb back could run between the tackles at the highest level. In one pre-season scrimmage during full contact drills McKay ran Simpson up the middle seven consecutive times. OJ seemed to grow stronger and more assertive with every run, knocking first team defenders onto their backs with apparent ease. The Trojans had their go-to man.

Then as today USC did not shy away from scheduling tough slates. In a 10 game 1967 season with seven conference match-ups and an annual bout with heavyweight Notre Dame already on the docket they also lined up a trip to East Lansing and a home game with Darrel Royal’s Texas Longhorns. Hugh Daugherty’s Michigan State Spartans claimed back-to-back national championships for 1965 and 1966. Texas won three national titles of their own during the 1960s and dominated the Southwest Conference. None of that intimidated OJ, who carried the ball 36 against Sparty and 30 vs. Texas. When asked about his enormous workload the irrepressible back said:

“I feel like I can go all the way every time.”

McKay half-jokingly stated:

“He isn’t in any union. He can carry it as much as we want him to.”

OJ’s collegiate career really took off in South Bend on October 14th 1967. Notre Dame was coming off a 9-0-1 year with the usual slew of vaunted recruiting classes. In year four of the Parseghian era the Irish were heavily favored to slide into their historic sixth gear. A one-touchdown loss in their second game at Purdue didn’t seem to register with the experts, who still had 2-1 Notre Dame as 14 point favorites at home against the 4-0 Trojans. Although the Irish went into the locker room up 7-0 at halftime, the visitors proved to have the staying power on the day. Terry Hanratty, Notre Dame’s all-American quarterback, threw six interceptions. OJ ran 38 times for 160 yards and accounted for all three USC touchdowns. Every week his huge carry totals testified to his strength, stamina and power. Simpson pounded Notre Dame without mercy and by the end of only his fifth division one football game he had compiled 762 yards. That pace never slackened.

Two weeks later OJ featured in an impressive road win in Seattle against 4-1 Washington, whose only previous loss had come at the hands of mighty Nebraska. Simpson ran 30 times for 235 yards (7.3 ypc) and again accounted for all three USC touchdowns in a 23-6 win.

USC cruised to easy wins vs. Oregon and at Cal before picking up the only regular season loss of OJ’s career on a slippery surface in Corvallis on November 11th. Behind the composed quarterback play of Steve Peerce the Beavers pulled off an ugly 3-0 win which is still considered the school’s greatest ever upset. Despite the conditions and a rare off day for the team OJ did not disappoint, carrying 31 times for 188 yards.

The loss created some uncertainty heading into the season finale cross-town clash with 7-0-1 UCLA (whose record also bore a single blemish doled out by the impertinent Beavers). The Pac Eight title, a trip to the Rose Bowl and a likely national title shot were in the balance. There was also plenty of Heisman Trophy talk surrounding the Bay Area rivals lining up in opposing backfields. In his first varsity season for the Bruins in 1955 Beban had engineered an unlikely comeback from a ten-point deficit against USC. He manufactured a 20-16 win in the final four minutes against eventual Heisman Trophy winner Mike Garrett. Bruins called him “the Great One”. Trojans were less enthusiastic.

Despite absorbing a string of tough hits Beban led the Bruins to a fourth quarter lead. Only two field goal blocks by 6’8” lineman Bill Hayhoe balanced out three Trojan fumbles inside the red zone and kept USC in the contest. The game had everything. The lead changed four times, scores were level heading into the fourth quarter, and the two Heisman candidates each enjoyed memorable career days. The Great One led UCLA up and down the field, throwing for over 300 yards and two touchdowns. He gave the Bruins a 20-14 lead early in the fourth quarter with a twenty yard pass to end Dave Nuthall (the last of seven catches he made on the day). Crucially, Ukranian born all-American punter Zenon Andrusyshyn missed the PAT. The sole spot on Beban’s performance came on the final play of the first period when he threw a pass into the left flat for Greg Jones that hung in the air just too long. USC’s Pat Cashman jumped the route and ran the ball back 50-yards for the game-tying score.

Critics might look at that mistake as the eventual difference maker (though Beban was playing hurt and could not be expected to do everything). Mathematically, the interception and Simpson’s legendary TD run with ten minutes remaining were of equal value. But football is more than mere numbers. Every seasoned fan knows in his gut when he has witnessed a genuinely momentum shifting moment of personal brilliance. In every meaningful sense, it was OJ’s run and not Beban’s pick that decided the day.

On third and three at his own thirty-six McKay called a pass play. At the line of scrimmage back-up quarterback Toby Page, who was in for Steve Sogge, saw a UCLA linebacker move back in anticipation and called an audible. He handed off to Simpson, who ran off-tackle left for five yards before meeting two Bruins. OJ then found his hidden gear, whirled left and burst into the open field as though it were nothing. His 64 yard touchdown palpably sealed a Trojan victory, despite the ten minutes remaining on the clock.

OJ finished the regular season with 1,415 yards and 11 TDs on 266 carries. He added 128 yards and 2 TDs on 25 carries in the 1968 Rose Bowl, leading the Trojans to 14-3 victory over Indiana [who represented the Big Ten rather than Woody Hayes’ Buckeyes because of the league’s ridiculous prohibition on consecutive bowl appearances].

Simpson’s incredible debut year in division one ball doubtless deserved a Heisman, but Beban also had a strong case. One L.A. Times writer said after the USC-UCLA game:

“They should send the Heisman out here with two straws.”

Beban went 24-5-2 and was a three time all-conference quarterback at UCLA. His 34 career touchdowns and over 1,500 passing yards established school offensive records that stood for 15 years. Having already won a conference title at LA’s less fancied football school in his first year, Beban’s appeal proved too much for Heisman voters.

OJ Simpson did enter his senior year as the stand out tailback with the defending national champions and was the clear Heisman favorite from day one. Repeating his 1967 statistics would make him the sure winner in a cake walk. He surprised no one by doing exactly that.

OJ's game-turning run vs. UCLA, 1967

The Trojans standout single handedly secured an impressive road win in Minneapolis on opening day. He scored four TDs, two coming in the final quarter to rally USC from behind. Simpson racked up 236 yards rushing and 57 yards receiving on six receptions. The 29-20 win came against a squad that had gone 8-2 the previous year. If there had been any question heading into the year who the Heisman favorite was, it had evaporated by the time USC boarded their plane home.

The Trojans came through their next eight games unscathed, despite narrow decisions against Stanford and Oregon State. In the third game of the year, USC’s home opener, an anticipated matchup between OJ and Miami’s 6’8” 210lb future hall of fame linebacker Ted “the Mad Stork” Hendricks fizzled into a rout. USC racked up points just as well as if the U had not even fielded a linebacking corps. A 28-3 win came as much from the passing yards Steve Sogge was able to rack up as Miami focused too much on OJ. Even still, Simpson punched in two short runs for TDs in another hundred yard day.

A record breaking career ended, fittingly enough, with games against USC’s great arch rival Notre Dame and the Big Ten’s perennial power Ohio State. OJ had excelled in every outing for two seasons. Behind his running the Trojans had won a conference title, a Rose Bowl and a national championship. Heading into a home date with the Irish on November 30th 1968 they were already repeat conference champions and only 120 minutes away from successfully defending their national crown. Ara Parseghian had other ideas.

Behind the passing of Joe Theismann (playing for an injured Terry Hanratty) and an exceptionally well prepared defense, Notre Dame held OJ to just 23 yards on nine carries in the first half and amassed a commanding 21-7 lead with a 234-71 yard edge. OJ’s longest run of the day amounted to a paltry seven yards. With ND keyed in on his every move it fell to Sogge to engineer the come back. He did just that, leading two long scoring drives to salvage a 21-21 tie. Simpson finished with just 55 yards on 21 carries – stunningly human career lows in both total yards and ypc (2.6)

Exactly one year previously Simpson put up his greatest collegiate performance and most memorable single play. He had sealed a dramatic win, clinched a conference championship and placed his Trojans in the driver’s seat for a national crown. That year the man in the opposing backfield had lifted the Heisman Trophy. In 1968 the roles were reversed. Coming off the sole poor performance of his career Simpson won the Trophy at a canter. Even with a 55 yard day vs. Notre Dame OJ racked up a staggering 1,709 yard, 22 TD year on 355 carries. His 2,853 Heisman voting points nearly tripled the total of second place Leroy Keyes of Purdue – a mere 1,103.

After claiming the Downtown Athletics Club’s coveted award Simpson had one last chance to make an impression in the legendry cardinal jersey. Waiting for him in Pasadena would be Woody Hayes’ Buckeyes. Ohio State reflected their prickly and often less-than personable coach. Hayes’ T-formation offenses were long out of style. His teams were physical, gritty, unattractive, predicable, disciplined, and extremely tough. They gave up little on defense and earned wins on offense three brutal, inexorable yards at a time.

In the early going USC seemed to be the team of destiny. OJ was his old self, finding daylight even inside the Trojans' own 20 yard line and tearing off 80 yards for a second quarter TD. But Hayes’ men dug-in. The Buckeye defense tightened and did not allow OJ loose again. Barely a minute into the fourth quarter the tide turned for good when Buckeye defensive end Bill Urbanik sacked Sogge at the USC 21 with the force of a freight train. After Vic Stollemyer recovered the fumble Ohio State quarterback Rex Kern, whose calm and unflashy play carried the day, fired off a 14-yard scramble and a four yard TD pass to halfback Leo Hayden.

OJ's 1969 Rose Bowl TD run

USC still had time to close the gap but on a fourth quarter drive cornerback John Tatum stood OJ up at the three, forcing a field goal where a touchdown would have made the task so much easier.

Along with his sublime 80-yard score Simpson fumbled twice, ran a sloppy route on a swing pass that allowed a Buckeye INT, and overthrew a halfback pass to end Ted Dekraai who was wide open in the endzone. Those mistakes cost dear as the Trojans dropped the game 20-16. Ohio State, not USC became national champions. OJ Simpson’s heart-thumping, jaw-dropping, whirlwind, record breaking collegiate career ended on two low notes – the only two low notes of the entire ride. OJ did add 171 yards and a touchdown to his career totals on the day. But he did not get the one thing he wanted – a second Rose Bowl.

Simpson went on to a pro career that met every expectation. He is unquestionably one of the game’s all-time great runners. The only tarnish on his considerable legacy is the unsolved case of the double murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman. So much ink has been spilled over this case that it is unnecessary for me to add to the total. The facts are that Simpson was acquitted in a criminal trial in October 1995 but that the case remains open. A civil trial found him guilty of wrongful death in February 1997.

The important question for this blog is whether uncertain but lingering and substantial doubts as to Simpson’s personal life and legal history are relevant to his collegiate legacy on the gridiron. There is a strong case to be made for leaving sporting achievements in a class of their own and not complicating the matter with uninvited elevations of athletes to the level of role models and leaders. Many intelligent and rational people take this line.

For my part, I prefer Joe Paterno’s perspective. When asked if his national champion1982 Nittany Lions were his best team ever he replied that true greatness was a measure of character, which could only be seen off the field. He told the reporter:

“Ask me again in twenty-five years.”

(Sources: Dan Jenkins, USC-ND 1967, Great One vs. OJ, Face-off that wasn’t, Irish tied up OJ, 1969 Rose Bowl; OJ, Wiki; Sports.jrank, OJ; USC-UCLA 1967, SI, Wiki; Hall of Fame, OJ;, Beban, OJ; CFB data warehouse; ESPN, Rites of Autumn)

Friday, June 19, 2009

The fall of 1905 (Presidential intervention part 2)

In the fall of 1905 College football faced a grave crisis that spilled over from decades of unchecked aggression. Ugly hits after plays, targeted attacks on key players and out-of-control body piles created public outcry. A New York Times article on October 15th 1905 stated: “For the last five years there has been more or less agitation for rule changes in football to accomplish the reducing of the liability to injury.” Finally, that fall, a perfect storm of public and political interest coincided with the game’s most violent, and regrettable year ever. The crisis culminated in lasting reform that created the modern game of football and established the lasting structure of the collegiate game.

Public interest in reform did not begin in 1905. During the game’s early decades through the late nineteenth century college football was regulated by the Intercollegiate Football Association’s rules committee, chaired by the venerable Walter Camp. The game’s original powers, the Ivy League establishment, ted the body. By the twentieth century, as the game was expanding both geographically and socially, the elitism of this limited access tarnished the committee’s reputation and effectiveness. Glorified gentlemen’s agreements maintained a universal style and system of play. Individual schools and not the IFA arranged and directed referees. The committee faced criticism from parties who viewed it as exclusionary – such as upstart Western
Walter Camp as a Yale player Conference (Big 10) who lobbied through the late 1890s for their man Amos Stagg to be admitted – as well as those who viewed the game as wantonly violent.

Many University Presidents, Boards of Advisors, and alumni groups feared the game’s disreputable elements rendered it unsustainable. They also looked in dismay on the distracting influence of football in collegiate life, its disproportional popularity, and the corrupting impact of the gate revenues it generated. At most schools game-day takings were handled by the athletic club’s graduate director with little oversight. Money often found its way to players or simply disappeared. The game also lacked any mechanisms for regulating eligibility and amateurism. Players routinely transferred, even during the season. There were no limits on the length of a man’s eligibility. A series of muckraking articles in McClure’s Magazine ran in the summer of 1905 highlighting the problem of creeping professionalism. They caused a public sensation. The author, Henry Needham, highlighted one athlete at Pennsylvania State College who performed well against Ivy League giant Penn on a Saturday and was practicing with the Quakers as a member of their squad by Monday.

Prior to the fall of 1905 reformers were already wondering how to prevent a popular but brutal game from eclipsing and disrupting American education. When the season began young men started suffering brutal and even injuries early and often. Prominent university administrators began seriously considering abolition of the game. It is a commonly rehearsed error that Roosevelt threatened to abolish the game in the absence of reform. He neither wanted that outcome nor possessed such power. In fact, by December several colleges were dropping the game without compulsion. Few administrators actually wanted to see football abolished. Even fewer wanted to leave the rules unchanged. But for every problem there existed dozens of proposed solutions and no adequate regulatory authority existed to enforce any one of them. The rules committee seemed an out-dated, ineffective tool of the eastern establishment.

The most famous and highly publicized injury of 1905 did not lead to a fatality. Robert “Tiny” Maxwell took a vicious beating during the Penn-Swarthmore game at Franklin Field on October 7th. Photos of his bloodied face shocked the nation. Stories that the pictures shocked President Roosevelt into action are certainly apocryphal as he had already organized a meeting with representatives of “the Big bloothree” colleges before the event. But such adverse press did add to public pressure. At 250lb and standing 6’4” tall, Maxwell was a giant among men. He played for two years at Chicago for Amos Stagg before transferring to Swarthmore College outside Philadelphia, where he acquired the sardonic nickname ‘Tiny’. The stand-out guard’s line play led Swarthore to a 7-1 record in 1905. Penn accounted for the only loss by singling out Maxwell for late hits and illegal contact to the face.

Not long after the game Swarthmore President John Swain stated publically that he supported President Roosevelt’s pressure for reform and that: “Swarthmore College stands for clean and manly sport, shorn of all unnecessary roughness. . . . [We] will cooperate with others to secured clean college athletics.”However, the college dropped football in 1908 under pressure from a wealthy alum who demanded the move as a condition of an endowment. Clearly powerful and influential people were sick of football. Had enough colleges agreed the game might have lost critical mass.

At the White House on October 9th Roosevelt entertained Dr. D. H. Nichols and football coach William Reid of Harvard, Arthur Hildebrand and John Fine of Princeton, and Walter Camp and John Owsley of Yale. Alongside Stagg, who was not present, these men made up the IFA rules committee. Roosevelt had no power to enforce any change. He set precedent simply by showing Presidential interest in such a matter. But in 1905 TR was in a unique position to act. The trend-setting President possessed almost limitless political capital. The New York Times summarized his Midas touch by reporting: “After settling the war in the Far East . . . President Roosevelt today took up another question of vital interest to the American people. He started a campaign for reform in football.” The reformist commander-in-chief would earn the Nobel Peace Prize that year, but to many Americans the act of lending his copious political influence to the pressure for regulation and reform in college football deserves more lasting notoriety.

The same day of TR’s meeting with the big three, Howard C. Montgomery died during practice at
Hampton-Sydney College, Virginia. Disgust at such loss of life added to suspicions of football’s disproportionate and educationally disruptive popularity. That same week, faculty members at Columbia expelled football captain Tom Thorpe for allowing his athletic obsession to undermine his grades. A week later a statement in the Harvard Bulletin from an alumni group demanded substantial reform of the game and quoted Dr. William White, a notable surgeon at the University of Pennsylvania, as saying: “the human body is not fitted to endure the game as it is played in American colleges.” In the wake of the Maxwell scandal White and U Penn emerged as leading advocates of reform.

Among the big three Harvard aligned most eagerly with upstart colleges beyond the Ivy League, especially after biased officials blatantly ignored extremely rough play from the Bulldogs in the 1905 Harvard-Yale game. Harvard men were suspicious of Walter Camp’s strangle-hold over the game’s rules. In three decades of college football Harvard had beaten Yale on only 3 occasions. Yale’s nce and on the field and influence in the rules committee seemed more than coincidental.

By 1905 Harvard men were ready to break the solidarity among the game’s established powers.
Reformers looked to create a more open style of play on the field and to more effectively enforce the rules. In November, several weeks before the Yale game, William Reid informed Harvard graduates that sweeping reforms were required to “put a higher premium on skill, make weight and strength of less value, and produce a more scientific and interesting sport.” He also advocated “the rigorous imposition of severe penalties.” Public statements from Roosevelt continued to support those goals. He particularly advocated “simplicity and uniformity in the eligibility rules.”

The month ended on a low note when William Moore, the right halfback of Union College died under a pile of bodies against NYU that required policemen to untangle. On the same day William Carter of Columbia was hospitalized in a game against Pennsylvania with a severe spinal injury. U Penn emerged in the early post-season as the leading voice for reform. A circular letter to all major athletics colleges invited representatives to a meeting in Philadelphia to discuss reform. U Penn officials suggested rules prohibiting players from representing more than one college in their career and the imposition of 25-yard penalties for violent hits. Several days later a public letter from a Professor Hollis at Harvard called for a definition of professionalism and the prohibition on monetary compensation.

The crisis of public confidence had reached fever pitch. A Chicago Tribune survey of university administrators published on November 26th reported Professor Shalter Matthews of the Chicago Divinity School as saying: “Football to-day is a social obsession – a boy-killing, education prostituting, gladiatorial sport. I do not know what should take its place, but the new game should not require the services of a physician.”

President Schurman of Cornell was less pessimistic. He believed that university Presidents possessed the power to reform the game and stated: “All that is needed is action.”

President Wheeler of California, Berkeley summated succinctly: “Football must be made over, or go.”

President Hopkins of Williams College captured perfectly the game’s internal conflict in publically supporting reform but warning that “taking all the struggle and peril out of [football] would just spoil it.”

Hopkins’ view represented the majority. Few favored outright abolition. When change finally came, the process moved quickly with revolutionary consequence. On November 27th Columbia President Francis S. Bangs joined NYU president Henry McCracken in threatening permanent abolition. He condemned the existing rules committee, stating: “I would not trust [them] to reform the game. . . A new committee should be appointed whose members have a direct personal responsibility to a higher authority.”

Columbia administrators perceived such dire immediacy that a committee of faculty announced two days later that the college would drop football. Professor Herbert Lord called the game an “obsession, which has become a hindrance to the great mass of students, and proved itself harmful to academic standing and human life.”

Even in whimsical postcards, vicious face injuries were assumed

Columbia became the first school to publically commit to abolishing the game as it then existed and others seemed to feel equally strongly. Even still, support for the game remained overwhelming. Students at Columbia turned out in droves to publically protest the euthanizing of their team. A New York Times editorial on December 5th stated: “College Presidents who think football too bad for further tolerance are extremely few.” It was in this climate that the FIA rules committee met at the Philadelphia home of George McFadden, the chair of U Penn’s football committee, on December 10th.

The committee debated several possibly rule changes. Walter Camp’s suggested Panacea was to increase the yardage required for fresh downs from five to ten. John Bell of U Penn hoped to weaken the ends of the line of scrimmage to encourage end running and prevent the ly body piles caused in central “mass plays”. He specifically suggested legalizing forward passes completed behind the line of scrimmage. Initially the forward pass was designed to open the field horizontally with back-field passes to the sidelines in order to get runners into the open. Bell had no idea how far his suggestion would eventually go to open play up and over the full hundred yards. More than any other rule change the forward pass defines the difference between American football and the early forms of Rugby from which it grew.

L. M. Dennis of Cornell suggested requiring all offensive players to remain behind the ball prior to kick-off. Stagg advocated 15 and 25 yard penalties for intentional fouls. The committee also considered suggestions for instituting a ‘neutral zone’ to separate the teams at the line. We can hardly imagine the game today without these rules and it is unfortunate that it took so many lives lost to bring them about.

Perhaps the most significant development came the day after the meeting when E. M. Seeley of the YMCA training school offered to host a training program for officials in order to improve standards of rule enforcement. This conceptual seed grew into centralized control over refereeing crews. Today the game would hardly function without conference and NCAA oversight of umpires.

Despite conservations in Philadelphia vocal reformers outside the Ivy League continued to doubt that the establishment could act effectively to save the game and the lives of those who played it. On December 20th, a week before a scheduled conference of athletics colleges in New York, McCracken called the rules committee “high and mighty potentates.” He complained of institutional exclusion and elitism, complaining that committee members were “elected I know not how.”

The 62 delegates who gathered from across the nation at the Murray Hill Hotel on December 28th addressed that very point. The meeting took just nine hours to agree on suggested reforms and elect a new rule committee which more fully represented the changing face of the game. H. L. Williams of Minnesota, J. T. Less of Nebraska, F. H. Curtis of Texas showed a shift both westward and towards public universities.
The meeting established a new body for oversight of both refereeing standards and rules of eligibility. The Inter Collegiate Athletics Association of the United States would change its name in 1910 to the National Collegiate Athletics Association. The body’s first act was to demand unification of the old and new rule committees and threaten independent action if the old guard refused.

On January 12th the two committees met at the Netherland Hotel in New York. William Reid announced at the meeting that the Harvard football committee had instructed him to join the new body unilaterally if necessary. Three days later the Harvard board of overseers announced that the university would drop football until satisfactory new rules were established. The board cut the Crimson’s off-season football camp short and sent the players home. This move had less to do with genuine taste for abolition than it did breaking Yale’s nce of the game. It succeeded spectacularly. Reid became secretary of the amalgamated committee. This position gave him the agenda-setting and editorial powers that Camp had long enjoyed.

A few days later President Hadley of Yale gave his annual alumni dinner address and showed his institution’s lack of enthusiasm for the reforming vandals who were wrestling control of the game from the Connecticut school. He stated: “In the 30 years we have played Rugby football at Yale there has been no , and to the best of my knowledge, no grave case of permanent injury.” He believed the situation required little more than college-level commitment to clean play. Regarding rule changes he only said: “we are happy to leave the work to Mr. Camp.” Obviously most other university presidents felt more strongly.

A week later on January 20th the annual conference of the Western Conference passed a stark and brief resolution declaring: “The game of football, as currently played, is hereby abolished in collegiate and inter-collegiate contests in conference colleges.” The conference adopted rules dramatically reducing the number of games played per year, giving faculty overseers control of gate receipts, and limiting varsity eligibility to three years. From those rules would grow intercollegiate athletics departments and NCAA regulation of eligibility. The conference which would supersede the Ivy League as the game’s power house for the ensuing half-century committed explicitly to new rules.

Only one week later the amalgamate rules committee ratified rule changes that radically changed the game. This proved a water shed. For thirty years college football had revolved around private, east coast schools and been ted by Yale – the game’s first great dynasty. The crisis of 1905 broke the ranks of the Ivy League establishment and introduced a broader influence in the game for rising football powers beyond the eastern private schools. It also created a central body that would enforce a universal version of the game and effectively cut the umbilical chord that still existed between the college game and English Rugby Football.

Officially college football is dated to the 1869 Rutgers-Princeton contest [although that meeting was actually a form of what would become Association Football]. The real birth date of the college game, at which it became truly and definitively American, is December 28th 1905. This was also the first time that upstarts forced an unresponsive establishment to admit them into their old-boys club and share the proverbial pie.

Here’s hoping the powers of misrule that control the BCS cartel face a similar day of destiny very soon.

(Sources: Richard Pagano, Robert Maxwell; New York Times; Chicago Tribune; John Sayle Watterson, College Football)

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)