In 1905 President Theodore Roosevelt was at the height of his political power, especially in foreign affairs. That was the year he mediated the accord that ended the Russo-Japanese War, an achievement that brought him the Nobel Peace Prize.
But 1905 was also the year in which Roosevelt made football a national, issue, and his example has become relevant today thanks to President Trump unleashing a war of words against the players of the National Football League who kneel during the national anthem to protest racial discrimination and police brutality. Trump—and now Vice President Mike Pence—have accused the players of being unpatriotic.
T. R. had reason to put football on his political agenda in 1905. The game had become unsafe. That year there were 18 football-related deaths, and football was at risk of being banned in colleges across the country. President Charles Eliot of Harvard, then an Eastern football power, was an outspoken critic of the game, and his views commanded a national audience. Eliot was repelled by what he regarded as football’s endorsement of the “barbarous ethics of war.”
Roosevelt saw critics like the influential Eliot winning the battle over abolishing football if he did not act, and the steps he took—told in detail by John Miller in his book, The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football—reflect how Roosevelt made the players’ wellbeing, rather than himself, the primary issue.
In his 1905 Harvard commencement address, Roosevelt assessed the state of football in America, defending the game but speaking at length of the injuries he saw being “wantonly” inflicted by players bent on hurting their opponents.
The address was a good start, but Roosevelt was unwilling just to talk about football. On October 9, T.R. went a step further than he had at Harvard by summoning to the White House leaders of the college game from Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.
In a meeting The New York Times reported with the front-page headline, “Roosevelt Campaign for Football Reform,” T. R. declared that football was on trial. He asked those he had invited to the White House to issue a statement on the need to make the game safer.
Roosevelt got his way when the six men who attended his White House summit announced, “At a meeting with the President of the United States it was agreed that we considered an honorable obligation existed to carry out in letter and in spirit the rules of the game of football relating to roughness, holding, and foul play.”
At a time when colleges, not the pros, gave football its prestige, the collective statement became a turning point for the transformation of football. When the 1906 season opened, a team was required to move the ball 10 yards rather than five in order to achieve a first down. The additional yardage meant a team had too far to go to just batter its way to success by running directly at its opponent, and in the following years, rules changes opened up the playing field still more.
Pushing and pulling the ball carrier forward by the offensive team was banned, making rushing plays that relied on brute force still harder. Most important, the forward pass, the key to widening the space in which a team operated, was encouraged when defenders were forbidden from interfering with pass receivers before they caught the ball and the football was elongated to make it easier to throw.
The contrast could not be greater between Roosevelt and Trump, who during his 2016 campaign complained that pro-football’s efforts to protect players from concussions were a sign of softness. T.R., the embodiment of virility in a president, realized it was crucial for players to be protected as much as possible from a game filled with risks. In his efforts to reform football, Roosevelt relied, as he had with Russia and Japan, on diplomacy rather than insult to get his way.
Would Roosevelt, who in 1901 challenged the racial mores of his time by inviting the African-American founder of Tuskegee Institute, Booker T. Washington, to a family dinner at the White House, side with today’s protesting National Football League football players?
It’s hard to say, but certainly Roosevelt would never have characterized a player who opposed him as a son of a bitch, as Trump has. Above all, he would have understood that the current protests during “The Star-Spangled Banner,” rather than being acts of disrespect, are affirmations, a way of saying America’s racial practices are not equal to its highest ideals.
In kneeling during the playing of the national anthem today’s National Football League players are following the example of Martin Luther King Jr., who, knowing the symbolism it would have, delivered his famous 1963 “I have a dream” speech on the footsteps of the Lincoln Memorial.