Virtual Voices

Bully for football

Sports

If Theodore Roosevelt were president today, he might have taken time off from budget talks with Congress to wade into the just-settled pro football labor dispute. Roosevelt was the ultimate multi-tasker as president-opening the Panama Canal, getting a Nobel Prize for ending a Japanese-Russian war, busting the trusts.

He also saved football in 1905, when it was a dangerous sport. Just that year 18 people died playing the game. Harvard University President Charles Eliot mounted a campaign to ban the sport as evil. On the other side was Walter Camp, the founding father of the American game that had some roots in European rugby.

Journalist John J. Miller has turned this controversy into a book, The Big Scrum, How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football. Miller, who writes for National Review and just started running the journalism program at Hillsdale College in Michigan, recently introduced his book in Indianapolis at the Sagamore Institute think tank.

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Not everyone wants more than 200 pages of football. But Miller is a good reporter and goes beyond football into the interesting history of American culture.

Football was a running game back then. (Scrum is short for scrimmage, or restarting a rugby game.) Defensive players didn't just tackle the ball carrier; they might pick him up and throw him through the air. Sometimes they targeted the other team's best player and knocked him out of the game as early as possible. The game was pretty wide open, with few penalty calls.

State legislatures debated proposals to outlaw the sport. The Progressive movement thought government could solve some problems with prohibition. Some progressives were aiming for prohibition of alcoholic beverages and would get their way a few years later.

Roosevelt, though, thought football could build character. In the Spanish-American War he recruited lots of former football players for his Rough Riders famed for charging up San Juan Hill.

As president in 1905, he called the two sides in the football dispute to the White House. Out of that little summit came a new organization, which eventually became the National Collegiate Athletic Association. The summit spurred some new rules, making the game safer.

The forward pass also was introduced into the rules, and passing changed the game dramatically in 1913, when Notre Dame, then an obscure midwestern school, upset Army, 35-14. Army was better, winning the national championship the next year, but they couldn't stop Notre Dame's innovative passing attack that featured Knute Rockne. Army was also missing a cadet named Dwight D. Eisenhower from the lineup that day, who couldn't play because of an injury and watched from the sidelines.

In the book Miller reveals another side of the greatness of the first President Roosevelt. He's known as the first modern president, with vigorous campaigning, even continuing to speak in 1912 after he took an assassin's bullet to the chest. He was a trustbuster and didn't hesitate to use the power of the federal government to achieve his aims. In some sense he was a big government liberal and expanded the presidential authority. But he also had instinctive wisdom about the limits of government, making him also a small government conservative in today's political definitions.

He settled the Japanese-Russian war with careful, patient diplomacy. He saved football without any new federal agency or regulations. "A skillful leader with a light touch can resolve a problem," Miller concluded.

Should the federal government even worry about sports? Philosophically, as a free market conservative, Miller would say, "No." For football, with a 1905 White House summit, though, he concludes, "It's hard to argue with the result."

Russ Pulliam
Russ Pulliam

Russ is a columnist for The Indianapolis Star, the director of the Pulliam Fellowship, and a member of God's World Publications' board of directors.

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