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.”
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)