NPR logo

When Football's Deadly Brutality Outraged America

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
When Football's Deadly Brutality Outraged America

When Football's Deadly Brutality Outraged America

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


To another sport now, football, which many people think is brutal today. Imagine the sport though 100 years ago. The roles were different, few players wore helmets, and games were sometimes deadly. Commentator Frank Deford says that began to change in November of 1909.

FRANK DEFORD: This month is the centennial of what has all but been forgotten - a moment that could have ended football in America, but instead forced the sport down a different, better path.

Football was so gruesome at the turn of the century, that in 1905, no less than President Roosevelt himself demanded that the sport clean itself up, and the notorious flying wedge was banned.

However, by ought-nine, as they said back then, it was still a brutal battle- royale. In the season's championship match - what may be called the first game of the century - The New York Times summed it up as an indescribable tangle of bodies, arms and legs.

That game, on November 20th, between two undefeateds - Yale and Harvard - was typical of the era. There were no touchdowns. In fact, when Yale won, eight to nothing, it finished its whole season completely unscored upon.

The forward pass had been legalized, in a limited fashion - but football was mostly just pounding scrimmage. Few players wore helmets, and a close observer declared that as Harvard and Yale pummeled each other, it was the most magnificent sight, every lineman's face was dripping with blood.

But the great game of a hundred years ago was overshadowed by greater carnage at other major universities. Three weeks before, when Harvard played at West Point, an Army lineman named Eugene Byrne was killed. Then, two Saturdays after that, against Georgetown in the nation's capital, the star University of Virginia halfback Archer Christian met his death.

The Chicago Tribune reported that 26 players had been killed on the gridiron that year. How long would America allow its brave youth to perish for a silly game?

The president of Stanford, disgusted, called football rugby's American pervert. And an even more fascinating critic was Colonel John Mosby, who as the fabled Confederate Gray Ghost had certainly seen more than his share of death and mayhem during the Civil War.

The old warrior called football a barbarous amusement that develops the brute dormant in man's nature and puts the player on a level with a polar bear.

In the face of such withering widespread criticism, the country's new collegiate athletic association was forced to find ways to reduce football's dangers.

Rules liberalizing the pass were instituted for the 1910 season, and soon it became the weapon that opened up a safer game.

Of course, some things never change for the better. Canny old Colonel Mosby also made this point: It is notorious that football teams are largely composed of professional mercenaries who are hired to advertise colleges. Gate money is the valuable consideration.

The Gray Ghost wrote that exactly a century ago, and although the NCAA could clean up the game on the field, it never has figured out how to manage the other abuses.

MONTAGNE: Commentator Frank Deford joins us each Wednesday from member station WSHU in Fairfield Connecticut.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.


Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.