"The Strenuous Life"

Football, Teddy Roosevelt, and the Dawn of the American Empire

Today's Super Bowl is a long way from football's Ivy League, "Muscular Christianity" roots. Or is it?

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

“What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?,” asks the brilliant Trinidadian polymath C.L.R. James, in the opening passage of his erudite 1963 book Beyond a Boundary, a treatise on the sport of cricket that one historian of Victorian England, Dr. Keith A.P. Sandiford, told this writer “changed the way we look at Victorian society.”  

He went on: “Before James’ broadly learned text, nobody recognized the importance of sport as the embodiment of deeply held societal values.” The brilliance of James’ analysis is that he demonstrated how cricket embodied the values of the British upper class during the Victorian era, when Britannia ruled the world. Foremost was the concept of playing by the rules, upholding fair play.  James writes, “The British Tradition soaked deep into me that when you entered the sporting arena to left behind the sordid compromises of everyday existence.”

One could equally claim “what do they know of football who only football know.” Guided by a master narrative of American civilization that is fashioned in the popular mind by hype artists and mythmakers more than the peer reviewed scholarship of professional historians, Americans like to think we are a peace-loving country. Our history and present circumstances suggest otherwise.

The United States was born in a bloody war. The vast and fertile land Anglo-Saxon settler/colonists fought their British cousins for was stolen from the indigenous people by force of arms, after which the settlers enacted genocidal policies to reduce the “Indian” population. They enslaved African Americans for 250 years, employing some of the most savage, depraved practices in history.

Hence, like cricket in Victorian England, football embodies some fundamental American values that harken back to the formation of the nation. And like cricket, football began as a patrician sport played by upper class white males in the Ivy League, commencing with the Princeton-Rutgers game in 1867.

It was the same year the Marquis de Queensbury introduced the formal rules of boxing, transforming artless bare-knuckle brawls between pugnacious bullies into the martial art of pugilism, which at its best becomes what A. J. Liebling calls a “sweet science.”

Driven by anxieties over the fear that upper-class white men were becoming “feminized” from “over-civilization,” advocates of “the strenuous life” such as Teddy Roosevelt began to embrace the sport of pugilism as a proper manly pursuit. The prestigious New York Athletic Club, playground of the rich and famous, hired a former professional bare-knuckle fighter and trainer Mike Donovan to teach men of the privileged class the fine points of pugilism.

Hence boxing also became popular among the young men who played football in the Ivy League; men who would later become leaders among those who pass the laws, control commerce, define cultural standards and determine the proper manners and morals for the nation.

In a 1903 speech Roosevelt said, “I believe in rough games and in rough, manly sports. I do not feel any particular sympathy for the person who gets battered about a good deal so long as it is not fatal.”

Yet it was the game of football that most faithfully reflected the zeitgeist of a nation embarking on the road to empire. It was the ideal sport for the age of “Muscular Christianity,” Social Darwinism, Anglo-Saxon ethnic/gender euphoria, the pseudo-science of eugenics, and white male supremacy. Football, from which black men were formally barred, became even more important as a demonstration of superior white male prowess after Jack Johnson won the world heavyweight boxing championship.

The gravity of this event for white supremacists was poignantly expressed in the hysteria of novelist Jack London’s call for a “Great White Hope” to take back the belt from the cocky, ebony black Jack Johnson. London viewed Johnson’s ascendancy to the heavyweight throne as an unmitigated catastrophe, and his views were widely held by white men everywhere—not least in the White House, where passionate boxing fan Teddy Roosevelt regularly beat the boxing bag in the White House Rose Garden.

TR’s public ridicule of white champion Tommy Burns’ shameful dodging of Johnson forced him into the ring with the black challenger, who whipped the white champion with ease on December 26, 1908. Johnson’s victory enraged white Americans, whipping up a wave of violent racist hysteria that resulted in armed attacks on Afro-Americans nationwide by white mobs, leading to injury and deaths just days before Christmas.

Teddy would make clear his belief that football was essential to the character development of white American males – the exclusion of black men made it a quintessentially American game - when a group of reformers developed a movement to legally ban football as a barbarous practice unworthy of a civilized society in the 20th century.

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Roosevelt’s passionate advocacy of the sport as a character builder for American males, and his success in convincing football coaches to substitute the forward pass as a means of advancing the ball instead of the constant collisions of power plays like the “flying wedge,” greatly reduced injury and deaths. This took away the major issues of the movement to ban football, and it petered out, although it has been resurrected today.

Without the scientifically engineered equipment players now enjoy, football at the turn of the 20th century was a bloody business that resembled organized mayhem. This period is richly detailed by David Kay Miller in his pathbreaking book The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football.

Although Teddy didn’t make the varsity squad at Harvard because he was nearsighted, he remained one of the sport’s biggest boosters. He saw playing the game as excellent preparation for military combat and even attributed the success of the cavalrymen he commanded during the Spanish/American War – popularly known as “Rough Riders” - to the fact that they were former football players.

In a 1903 speech Roosevelt said, “I believe in rough games and in rough, manly sports. I do not feel any particular sympathy for the person who gets battered about a good deal so long as it is not fatal.” However, the events of 1904 put Teddy, and all football fans, on the defensive. A measure of the carnage could be seen in a Chicago Tribune report of 18 deaths and 159 serious injuries among amateur football players in prep schools.  

Today professional football is dominated by the forward pass, and with the speed, style and grace Afro-American athletes bring to the “skills” positions, football has become the greatest show on turf. In view of its history – and the state of perpetual warfare we find ourselves in today - it is no accident that the terminology used to describe the game is filled with military metaphors. The long pass is “the bomb.” The quarterbacks who throw them are called “field generals with “cannon arms.” Accurate passes are called “bullets.” The world-class speed of wide receivers is called “after burners” like in fighter jets. Line play is called “battling in the trenches.” And the paramount objective of the game is to advance and hold the opponent’s territory.

The desire to dominate opponents by sheer brute force is inculcated in players at an early age; it is the result of systematic indoctrination with the idea they are “warriors.” When I played high school football in football-cray Florida, before every game we would form a circle, pile on hands and repeat after the coach in a rising crescendo: “We want them…Before our feet! They shall not rise!!!”

More than 100 million people will watch today’s game. Indeed, football is so popular that according to Richard Deitch of Sports Illustrated, NBC will average more than $5 million  for a 30-second commercial during the game. And it has truly become the all-American sport, transcending race, class and ethnicity. The once lily-white teams from the foundational cities of Philadelphia and Boston that will clash in the Super Bowl now look more like the national teams of Nigeria and Ghana. For the millions of spectators watching in hovels and high-rise penthouses, it’s just a game…but then: what do they know of football who only football know.