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May 02

The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football

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In its infancy in the late 19th Century, the game of football was still a work in progress that only remotely resembled the sport millions follow today. An Americanized version of rugby, there was no common agreement about many of the game’s basic rules, and it was incredibly violent and extremely dangerous. Numerous young men were badly injured and dozens died playing it in highly publicized incidents, often at America’s top prep schools and colleges.

Objecting to the sport’s brutality, a movement of proto-Progressives led by Harvard University President Charles W. Eliot tried to abolish it. President Roosevelt, a vocal advocate of “the strenuous life” and a proponent of risk, acknowledged football’s dangers but admired its potential for building character. In 1905, he summoned the coaches of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton to the White House and urged them to act. The result was the establishment of the NCAA as well as a series of rule changes that ultimately saved the game.

John J. Miller is National Correspondent for National Review, a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, and the author of four books, including theThe First Assassin (a novel) and Our Oldest Enemy: A History of America’s Disastrous Relationship with France. This fall, he will become Director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College in Michigan.

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