In the early 1900’s, football was a brutal sport. The rules of the game were much like Rugby, and many players suffered from concussions, bodily injury, and even death. In 1904, Teddy Roosevelt was incensed by the 18 deaths that were experienced in college football that year (Greene). He called for a white house meeting in which he threated to abolish football if the rules were not changed so as to lessen the sports violence in the game (Greene). He threatened to end the game of football by executive order (Cohen). The legal ramifications would have been an end to football; instead, football’s leaders worked with Roosevelt to develop rules that would open up the game field and protect the players. There was little protective legislation for sports players, therefore it took the influence of an executive threat to change football.

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Roosevelt changed the rules of the game by getting football’s leaders to commit to ridding the game of the rugby style parts of it that led to so much violence: “Roosevelt convened a meeting in the White House of the most influential men in college football” (Greene). Therefore, mass formations and gang tackling were outlawed, and an entirely new play was added to the rules of football—the forward pass which revolutionized the playing field (Brooks). By revolutionizing the game, Roosevelt was able to respond to the civil matter of his own son being injured while playing football for college. Roosevelt was upset because he had been a college boxer and had experienced brutality first hand, however, the injuries that his son received caused him to watch college football (Greene). After seeing the brutality and violence of the game up close, he vowed to save the sport, but to also change the sport (Greene).

Because of the new rules in the game, there were multiple newspaper publications that informed new player how to play the new game. One such recurrent article was written by George Brooks for the New York Tribune. The new rules increased the ability for tacticians to create a scientific sport that was rewarding for player and spectator (Brooks). Roosevelt’s actions were such that the sport was forever changed because of his involvement. The history of the legal threat and meeting is such that he was able to convince football’s leaders that the changes did not lessen the player’s strengths, it actually increased them (Brooks). The forward pass is something that allows players to spread the field and use more of a tactical approach to the game (Brooks).

Prior to Roosevelt’s intervention, football was classified as a curable evil, right up there with lynchings (Greene). This shows how drastic the need was to change the rules governing football. The eighteen deaths of that season were not litigated because there were no laws that protected the player from negligence. In part, the laws were against the player for having signed up for possible injury (Cohen). In 1908, FELA was enacted to protect railway workers from negligent owners; however, this is not legislation which umbrellaed to the sports arena (Cohen).

In conclusion, Roosevelt is to thank for the modern NFL because without college football the NFL would never have blossomed. Roosevelt is to thank for threatening an executive order to end football unless the rules were legally changed. The meeting that he held with the influential leaders of football was one that was forward-thinking in 1905. Presidential power was needed in order to sway the future of football. The forward pass changed the dynamics of the game, and players have had decreased injuries.

  • Brooks, George. “How to Play Football Under the New Rules.” The New York Tribune, 1906, Accessed 30 Jan. 2018.
  • Cohen, Wayne. “The Relationship Between Criminal Liability and Sports: A Jurisprudential Investigation.” Sports Law Rev, 311, 1990, Accessed 30 Jan. 2018.
  • Greene, Bob. “The President Who Saved Football.” CNN, 2012, Accessed 30 Jan. 2018.