Football was such a violent game in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries due to the lack of rules that made moves such as punches, drop-kicks and other violent instances illegal. This, coupled with the fact that there was no mandatory protection equipment, such as helmets and shoulder pads, made it a very dangerous game to play. An abandonment of the offside law – which prevented offensive blocking – and a relaxation of tackling laws in the late 1880s – which enabled tackling above the knee – encouraged formations such as the ‘flying wedge’, where offensive players massed in front of the ball carrier (with a run up) and pushed forward through the defense, blocking their paths to the ball carrier. The formation was highly dangerous, and resulted in a multitude of serious injuries and deaths during the 1905 season.
At the time, the Football Association, which was comprised of representatives from the major colleges in the country, controlled how the game was played. There was no definitive authoritative body that controlled the game’s rules or how it was played at this time; this was the reason behind the founding of the NCAA. President Theodore Roosevelt was a fan of the game, but was abhorred by the amount of injuries in the 1905 season. This was when he called a meeting with representatives of the the major college teams, and stressed that the game be reformed, or potentially become outlawed by Presidential Executive Order. There was no national organization that had the power to force the existing rules committee to completely change the rules of the game.
It was at this time that Henry M. MacCracken, Chancellor of New York University, decided to call an official meeting between the universities that were involved in college football at the time. Thirteen representatives took part in the initial meeting in New York City on December 9, 1905 to discuss possible reforms to the game. When they reconvened at the end of the month, a huge 62 teams had representatives present for the meet. This meeting was where the initial idea was formed to form an athletic commission to monitor rule changes, which was the start of the formation of the NCAA.
Supporters of the game, including President Roosevelt, felt that football was a key way of teaching and developing character in college men, and enabling the game to continue in college format was a way of increasing the interest of young men in going to college and receiving an education. George Woodruff evaluated football to be a way of learning determination and developing ‘Spartan-like’ fortitude. The game, at the time, was being treated like a military exercise, with coaches employing Napoleon-style formations and enacting war-like tactics to win games. The supporters of the game felt this was good training for conflict and war, and potentially future deployment, which was on the horizon at the time. At the same time, the sport was making money for the colleges that played the sport to a high level. To summarize, supporters at the time believed that sports and athletics were educational to the players, and taught the player and spectators important life lessons, such as courage and braveness, that would shape the future generations of Americans.
Other motivations that led for opponents of football to call for its abolition in the early 1900s were problems such as believing that football was interfering with academics to a worrying degree, such was the belief of the Columbia University President, Nicholas Murray Butler. It was a consensus that some scholars were more interested in football than studying, and it was a worry with some scholars that some colleges were paying coaches a lot of money to coach the college teams, and none of the players were not being paid. Others believed that football was beyond reform, and the game needed abolishing purely due to boring nature of what it had become.
One of the most significant rule changes of the time was the introduction of the forward pass, which is one of the staples of the modern game. The introduction of this move discouraged mass plays such as the flying wedge, and hurdle plays such as throwing the ball carrier over the defensive line. This change opened the game up more and ultimately resulted in less injuries. Another important rule change was the move to abolish the dangerous flying wedge entirely; the infamous play was the cause of masses of injuries.
The rules also created a neutral zone at the line of scrimmage between offense and defense, which enabled the quarterback more time to unload a pass. The change also changed the first-down distance to 10 yards, to be gained in maximum three downs. This removed the practice of pushing inch-by-inch in mass formation, a dangerous technique which resulted in many injuries. The length of the game was reduced from 70 minutes to two halves of 30 minutes each, to make it safer and reduce player fatigue and desperation tackles. A fourth official was also made mandatory for games, to ensure the teams followed the rules, and the rules could be enforced when the referee’s vision of play was blocked. These rule changes did initially reduce the violence of the game, until 1909, when deaths shot up from an average of 3 to 10 in one season. This gave opponents of football another reason to call for its abolition, leading to further changes being made in 1912 to complete the clean up of the sport.
The changes to the rules implemented after the 1905 season challenged Walter Camp’s control over the game. Before the rules committee was established, the rule changes were made by members of the competing colleges. This caused a large conflict of interest, due to the fact that coaches and board members of the various colleges would try to implement rules to give their team an advantage based on their particular skills. When the rules committee was established, this was no longer possible, and so Camp was unable to push for reforms that give an advantage to his Yale side.
Camp was a part of the changes that shaped modern football into the sport it is today, influencing decisions on rule changes and reforms based on rugby rather than soccer, and developing player roles and innovative plays. As head coach, Camp and his Yale team went 14 years unbeaten. Coaches from other teams thought that Camp had too much power, and were resistant to joining the commission for rule change when he was involved. Harvard coach Bill Reid was most resistant, starting his own committee, in a power play, and eventually claiming the position of secretary of the rules committee from Banks, loosening his control on the rules of the sport, necessitating the need for a unanimous vote to implement any rule changes.
In conclusion, the violence caused by increasing competitiveness and rule changes at the beginning of the century called for the abolition of football as a college sport. However, a meeting and lecture from President Roosevelt roused the universities to form a rules committee and commit to changing the rules of the game to protect the players. This made the game safer, and also more interesting to watch, given the introduction of the forward pass and the removal of the ability to push for inches rather than yards. The removal of dangerous plays such as the flying wedge and hurdle plays made the game more family friendly to watch, and ultimately may have made the game more commercially viable to make it the success it is today.