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Crunch Time

Football wasn’t always as dangerous as it is now. It used to be far, far worse.

By Christopher Klein
November 21, 2010

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Thanksgiving weekend’s traditional four-day glut of football will come with an extra helping of trepidation this year, as it becomes increasingly apparent that the very thing that America loves about football — its tough physicality — might be causing hidden long-term harm to its players. Recent studies have found that former players with a history of head trauma have much higher rates of dementia and depression than average Americans, and the recent suicide of a University of Pennsylvania lineman and the death of a Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver called attention to the psychological struggles facing players who have spent their lives pounding into one another.

To limit the danger to players, the NFL has announced a crackdown on helmet-to-helmet blows, imposing stiff fines and threatening suspensions for egregious hits. Some doctors and football analysts are suggesting that the sport needs much more dramatic changes, pushing for a newer, less dangerous form of football with a wider field, restrictions on tackling, even player weight limits.

In response, a chorus of loyalists has begun calling for a timeout, worried that the league would emasculate the game by reining in violent hits. “Can the NFL continue to be king of American sports if it’s a kinder, gentler game?” asked Peter King, the influential Sports Illustrated columnist. For many, the answer is clearly no: The president of the NFL Players Association told ESPN Radio that “the skirts need to be taken off in the NFL offices”; analyst Mark Schlereth raised the specter of the game becoming little more than two-hand touch. “Let’s see how popular your game is if nobody’s hitting anybody,” he said.

So would new, safer rules really doom America’s favorite sport? It’s impossible to know for sure without a very big and potentially costly experiment. But there might actually be an answer, or at least a precedent. Football, in fact, has been here before.

The current debate about player safety echoes a crisis that confronted football a century ago, when America’s gridirons ran red with the blood of its combatants. Football was enjoying its first wave of popularity, but was also becoming an increasingly brutal game, and deadly hazardous for its players. Dozens of fatalities spurred calls for football to be banned entirely. The White House itself intervened, and the football authorities of the time enacted a series of radical rule changes.

When they did, critics predicted the brute essence of the sport would be diluted, ruining the game. What happened instead was much more interesting: Rather than dampening fan appeal along with the violence, the new rules made football more popular than ever. It was those changes, in effect, that gave birth to the modern game.

For many football fans filing into venerable Harvard Stadium on autumn Saturdays, the archways ringing the exterior instantly evoke the Roman Colosseum. When Harvard’s football team entered the stadium for the first time in 1903, the comparison was especially apt: The players were engaging in a sport whose barbarism might have impressed even the Romans.

While professional football was virtually nonexistent at the turn of the 20th century, college football had become immensely popular, rivaling professional baseball for fan appeal. The inaugural Rose Bowl in 1902 signaled the sport’s ascendancy, and Harvard’s giant concrete horseshoe, which could hold 22,000 fans, stood as a new symbol of football’s mass audience.

The game played in the early 1900s was a grinding sport of running and kicking, in which the forward pass was illegal and players used brute strength to move the ball. They would lock arms in mass formations and employ their helmetless heads as battering rams. Gang tackles routinely buried ball carriers underneath a ton and a half of tangled humanity.

The bruising nature of the sport appealed to coaches, players, and fans who saw it as instilling manly virtues and building strong bodies at a time when America was becoming more urban and, in the minds of some, less rugged and virile. Rough play was viewed as a character-building exercise, and teams employed military principles to develop formations such as the notorious “flying wedge,” in which the offense locked hands in a V-shaped pattern and mowed down defenders in a vicious demonstration of Newton’s Second Law.

With little equipment to protect them, players sustained gruesome injuries: crushed skulls, wrenched spinal cords, and broken ribs that pierced their hearts. In 1904 alone, 14 people died playing football. (By comparison, in 2009 — with 1.8 million people now playing and much longer seasons — there were just three deaths.)

College football continued to draw thousands of spectators, but many Americans were becoming appalled by the carnage. Muckraking exposés fueled public outrage, and newspaper editorials called on colleges and high schools to banish football outright. The concern reached such a pitch that one of the sport’s biggest boosters — President Theodore Roosevelt — got involved.

Roosevelt’s nearsightedness had prevented him from playing on the Harvard varsity as an undergraduate, but he cherished football’s contribution to the “strenuous life,” both on and off the field. “In life, as in a football game,” he wrote, “the principle to follow is: Hit the line hard; don’t foul and don’t shirk, but hit the line hard!” Even Roosevelt, however, acknowledged that football had become too dangerous, and with his son Theodore Jr. now playing for the Harvard freshman team, his interest in reforming the game became paternal as well.

Using his bully pulpit, the First Fan summoned representatives of the premier collegiate powers — Harvard, Yale, and Princeton — to the White House early in the 1905 season and urged them to curb excessive violence and set an example of fair play for the rest of the country. The schools released a statement condemning brutality and pledging to keep the game clean.

If football was on trial for the remainder of the 1905 season, it mounted a poor defense. Fatalities and injuries mounted. In the freshman tilt against Yale, the president’s son was bruised and his nose broken — deliberately, according to some accounts. The following week, the Harvard-Yale varsity game utterly failed to live up to the schools’ vow to play cleanly; the Crimson nearly quit the game after their captain was leveled by an illegal hit on a fair catch that left his nose broken and bloodied. But the worst collegiate incident occurred in the Bronx later that day when Union College halfback Harold Moore died of a cerebral hemorrhage after being kicked in the head while attempting to tackle a New York University runner.

It was a grim coda to a savage season. In what the Chicago Tribune referred to as a “death harvest,” the 1905 football season resulted in an astonishing 19 player deaths and 137 serious injuries. A Cincinnati Commercial Tribune cartoon depicted the Grim Reaper on a goalpost surveying a twisted mass of fallen players. Stanford and Cal switched from football to rugby, while Columbia, Northwestern, and Duke dropped the sport altogether. Harvard president Charles Eliot, who considered football “more brutalizing than prizefighting, cockfighting, or bullfighting,” wanted to follow suit.

To institute sweeping changes, NYU chancellor Henry MacCracken convened an intercollegiate conference, which would become the forerunner of the NCAA. Roosevelt worked behind the scenes to urge the leading football authorities to support reforms. The conference approved radical rule changes for the 1906 season that, in many ways, formed the foundation of the modern sport. They legalized the forward pass, abolished the dangerous mass formations, created a neutral zone between offense and defense, and doubled the first-down distance to 10 yards, to be gained in three downs. A proposal to widen the field by 40 feet was dropped because Harvard Stadium, literally set in stone, could not be altered.

Critics blasted the changes. Football’s masculine essence was being neutered. Yale’s Walter Camp, considered the father of American football, opposed the forward pass as a risky maneuver that made football more a game of chance than of skill and brawn. So did Cornell coach Glenn “Pop” Warner. Pennsylvania coach A.L. Smith thought the changes would backfire, making the game both lower-scoring and more perilous by encouraging open-field tackles.

The rule changes following the 1905 season didn’t instantly eliminate the dangers of football, but fatalities declined — to 11 per year in both 1906 and 1907 — while injuries fell sharply. And something else happened as well: Football became more crowd-pleasing. New fans were attracted by the speed and athleticism that passing brought to the game, and a more open style of play meant that spectators could actually see the ball, which had often been buried from view inside a mass of players. A spike in fatalities in 1909 led to another round of reforms that further eased restrictions on the forward pass, and the wildly popular aerial age soon emerged.

In the decades since, football has continued to change. Nearly every year the NFL announces tweaks to the rules designed to protect players and improve the game. Face-masking, clothesline tackles, and spearing with the helmet, once perfectly legal, are now considered dangerous relics, and it’s hard to imagine even the most hidebound fans wanting them back.

Today, the sport is played by larger, faster men than the reformers of 1905 could ever have imagined. And the reform movement is driven by a new kind of knowledge about football’s risks: that it can hurt players long after their playing days are over. It’s becoming increasingly clear that repetitive injuries to the brain caused by tackling and blocking create long-term problems for players. And research has also linked the extreme weight of retired NFL players to premature deaths.

No one yet knows what it will take to make football safer not just for players in the game, but for players long since out of it. Violence will always be endemic to football, but a page from history’s playbook demonstrates that making the sport kinder and gentler — even dramatically overhauling its rules — won’t necessarily make it less appealing. In fact, it could ensure that the king of American sports continues to enjoy a long reign.

Christopher Klein is a freelance writer and the author of ”The Die-Hard Sports Fan’s Guide to Boston.” E-mail him at chris@christopherklein.com.