The origins of American football are not as murky as the origins of baseball (at least there is no Abner Doubleday in the mix) but one thing that is almost universally agreed upon is that the sport as it is known today traces back to Ivy League colleges shortly the start of the 20th century although the first game to played took place in 1869. Of course, that game resembled something you would see in the World Cup far more than anything that might take place in the Super Bowl (Reid 72).
The game as played from that point forward to the first decade of the 20th century shifted and transformed and eventually looked more like rugby and resulted in more and more violence until a game took place in 1905 that resulted the death of an astonishing 18 players. Noted elephant killer and President of the United States Theodore Roosevelt issued a call for the game to be changed to diminish such violent or else face banishment. The result of negotiation for these alterations in the game included the legalization of the forward pass which went a long way toward clearing out the mob structure of the players on the field by forcing them to stretch out a bit more while other “major changes included the addition of another referee, banning of open-handed blows….and a new fair catch signal” (Reid 105).
The changes made to keep the violence that marked the first half-decade of college football alive and well also has the effect of diverting attention away from the possibly even more deleterious effect on the game being made by corruption and gambling. It may never be known if football would have gone on to become the national obsession it has become today if the focus of Roosevelt had been a bit more attuned to problems with money rather than problems with aggression, but history has proven that saving the college game from banishment at the point when its future seemed most vulnerable may have been the single most important moment in the history of sports in America.
A very good question to ask is what is sports in American without cheerleaders? The very same Ivy League football fields where the game that would go on to displace baseball as the national pastime originated would also be the site where cheering on your favorite team started.
The highly athletic cheerleading which has today moved well beyond the sidelines of the football and basketball games and into the realm of a sports of its own got its start around the same time that American football became subject to a series of new rules and regulations designed to reduce violence, increase participation and expand its audience. The cheerleaders were men often sneered at “rah-rah boys” but sneered at only by those suffering the pangs of enjoy or jealously since “the position of cheer-leader nowadays is fraught with great responsibility and rated as a high honor, so much so that in many colleges competitions and examinations are held to select the cheer-leaders” (Hanson 13).
What the growth of college football and the accompanying elevation of the sidelines cheerleader to a status of great influence essentially managed to do to early 20th century America was nothing less than to transform the university from a place where academics was everything to place where academics had to compete on an even keel with socializing.
- Hanson, Mary Ellen. Go! Fight! Win! : Cheerleading in American Culture. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State U Popular, 1995.
- Reid, Bill. “Three: The Play That Changed Football.” Game Faces: Five Early American Champions and the Sports They Changed. By Thomas H. Pauly. Lincoln, NE: U of Nebraska, 2012. 69-108.