This Christmas, Concussion will bring to the big screen the latest saga in football’s inherent reckoning with the damage and violence it inflicts upon players. This sort of condemnation, however, is not new.
Over a century ago, opponents of football charged that the sport was too violent to deserve any reputable sanction in the United States. The Washington Star newspaper featured an article titled “The Game of Manslaughter” (PDF) lamenting that the 1897 football season had only just begun and “yet at least three deaths have already occurred as the direct results of” football.
The danger of concussions was known even then: “The latest death was typical of most others that are to be charged against the game. The victim had the ball, was tackled and thrown, and was instantly buried beneath a mound of human forms. His brain suffered a fatal concussion and he died within a few hours practically without having regained consciousness.”
Amidst this rising tide of opposition to football’s brutality arose a new game: basketball.
Played for the first time on Dec. 21, 1891, basketball debuted at the YMCA’s Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts. The YMCA instructor responsible for the sport, James Naismith, was attempting to find a sport playable indoors during winter months. In devising his new sport, Naismith keenly observed contemporary sports and attempted to mitigate, if not altogether remove, the odious violence of football.
The most popular American sports in the 1890s were baseball and football. Baseball was the domain of professionals and football championed as the sport of amateurs. The YMCA was one of, if not the, premier champion of amateur sports in this period. So, even if riddled with violence, football had a measure of redeeming value thanks to its overwhelming amateur nature.
In December 1891, the same month basketball was invented, the YMCA Training School’s journal, The Triangle, dedicated an entire edition to football. The Triangle, edited by none other than Naismith, featured the following graphic on what made amateur football superior to professional baseball:
Baseball was clearly not the sport of choice for the amateur enthusiasts within the YMCA. Not only was it dominated by professionals, but it encouraged individualism and laziness. Football on the other hand demanded “too much manhood” to be a professional sport. (Clearly the editors of The Triangle did not see the NFL coming.) Teamwork was essential and success depended on the entire team doing well, not merely one or two star players.
Still, the middle-class, native-born white Americans who most vocally supported amateurism, found an unease with football because of its violence. These proponents of amateurism were also the same progressives that decried business monopolies of the Gilded Age, and unfettered immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe to urban areas, and lynchings in the American South.
Generally in the progressive view, capitalism was good, but unbridled it could funnel all of society’s wealth to a tiny few causing violent unrest. Immigrants could benefit America, but only in manageable quantities, otherwise the new Americans might overrun the country. Opposition to the extralegal mob violence of lynchings was balanced with admonitions that black Americans shouldn’t do anything to “incite” lynching. Everywhere one looked in the progressive agenda, there was a tension to maintain an equilibrium that kept society away from perceived extremism.
Football slid quite capably into that tension. It was capable of doing good (promoting amateurism), but was susceptible to destroying those who played it, if left unchecked. In that December 1891 edition of The Triangle, there was a debate centered on whether football was, on balance, worthy of being played at YMCAs.
Opponents of football charged that the sport was too brutal. “Continually we hear of the slugging that is carried on, of the ungentlemanly conduct indulged in, and of the opportunities for the satisfaction of private spite that are afforded,” charged the opposition. Football, they continued, “is a modern gladiatorial fight, where many men are injured but not so many killed as formerly.”
Supporters of football dismissed brutality as not essential to the game, but as a result of “neglect of the umpire in enforcing the rules, which amply cover such cases.” “The game,” they insisted, “must be judged from those instances in which the rules are obeyed and not by those in which the rules are openly violated.”
Other arguments were offered up in the debate, which you can read, but the three-judge panel ruled in favor of the opposition by a score of 44 to 42. As the score indicates, it was not a clear-cut disavowal of football. Serving as one of the judges in this debate was James Naismith, so he was well aware of the pros and cons of the sport.
Over the next 20 years, many universities, colleges, high schools, and others held similar debates calling for a major reformation, if not outright ban, of the sport.
David Dayen of Politico described the violence pervading football of the era:
“’While this carnage did not prevent crowds from gathering and growing—ask any Roman emperor why—it worried several prominent leaders. “I saw a game of football last Saturday,” said Rep. Charles B. Landis of Indiana, brother of the future baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, in 1905. “There was not a boy in the game who did not run the risk of receiving an injury that would send him through life a hopeless cripple… dog fighting, cock fighting and bull fighting are Sabbath school games in comparison with modern football.’”
Ultimately, Teddy Roosevelt had to use the bully pulpit of the presidency in 1905 to instigate safety changes to the game, lest it be banned across the nation.
In 1910, Kansas University came close to abolishing football in favor of rugby, generally considered a less dangerous sport. At a mass student meeting supporting football, Naismith (now employed at Kansas) spoke out in favor of the beleaguered sport, saying he had “always believed that football [was] the typical college game.” Kansas and its fellow members of the Missouri Valley Conference voted to more heavily regulate football instead of abolishing it.
That Naismith would defend football is not surprising. He had played the sport back at the YMCA Training School alongside famed footballer Amos Alonzo Stagg. However, Naismith defending football from complete dismemberment isn’t the same as a complete embrace of the sport.
Indeed, looking at his thought process behind creating basketball indicates that Naismith, like many others including President Roosevelt, may have admired football, but still found much to be expunged from the sport. Indeed, maybe a better sport could be made to maintain all of football’s benefits without its crippling downside.
James Naismith died in 1939. Fortunately, he had finished his memoirs on creating basketball, Basketball: Its Origins and Development, which was published in 1941. The memoirs are an invaluable insight to the process Naismith went through in creating the sport.
Naismith’s first attempt at creating an indoor winter sport, which eventually became basketball, involved modifying his students’ favorite sport: football.
Naismith tried to eliminate the roughness of football by “substitut[ing] the tackling of English Rugby for that of the American game.” Naismith explained that “in Rugby, the tackle must be made above the hips, and the endeavor is to stop the runner rather than to throw him.” After trying the modified football with tamer tackling rules, an irritated Naismith reported that “the changing of the tackle did not appeal to the members of the class, who had been taught to throw the runner with as much force as possible… they would have none of it.”
Determined to prevent the viciousness of football in his nascent basketball, Naismith pondered why tackling was necessary in any sport. After contemplation he concluded, “It was because the men were allowed to run with the ball, and it was necessary to stop them… ‘If he can’t run with the ball, we don’t have to tackle; and if we don’t have to tackle, the roughness will be eliminated.’”
Indeed Rule 5 of Naismith’s original basketball rules expressly forbade “shouldering, holding, pushing, tripping, or striking, in any way the person of an opponent.” If this rule were violated, a foul would be called. In football, there might be wrong ways to shoulder, push, trip, etc., but in basketball none of those maneuvers were to be allowed without punishment.
In his memoirs, Naismith also reduced basketball down to five principles. The fourth principle seemed to be a direct indictment of the warlike setup of football. Principle 4 stated, “Both teams are to occupy the same area, yet there is to be no personal contact.” As we know, basketball can be a very physical sport. Indeed, the very first game—played by football enthusiasts remember—was a raucous affair, but Naismith’s principle still holds. Both teams fully share the court space and when sudden contact is made, referees are forced to make a ruling on who is at fault.
A month after the first basketball game was played, Naismith published the first article about the sport in the January 1892 edition of The Triangle. Naismith in this earliest publication on basketball unequivocally declared, “It is intended that this game should be free from much of the reputed roughness of Rugby, and in framing of rules this has been kept strictly in view. If some of the rules seem unnecessarily severe, it will be remembered that the time to stop roughness is before it begins.
“The very men who are rough in playing will be the very first ones to oppose the game on this account,” accused Naismith.
What followed next was a statement so confident it bordered on bravado, something atypical for Naismith, as he denounced those who engaged in rough play. Indeed, the statement is so certain, it’s hard to imagine its sentiment wasn’t guiding Naismith all along as he tried to create a sport predicated on skill and teamwork, without the slugging and savagery of football.
“There is neither science nor skill taking a man unawares, and shoving him, or catching his arm and pulling him away, when he is about to catch the ball. A dog could do as much as that.”