By Andrew D. Linden
“Thanksgiving and football was the perfect blend of two great American creations,” explains ESPN reporter Sal Paolantonio. “Thanksgiving is our own holiday. And football is this great indigenous sport, created here, for Americans, so it was just this great blend of two great American creations.”
Indeed, these purported American traditions helped Thanksgiving Day evolve into a holiday for gridiron pageantry. Today, people across the country will celebrate with the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City, a festive meal, and of course, the NFL. While other teams have periodically appeared on the holiday, historically and as they will today, Detroit and Dallas have played host to Thanksgiving Day games throughout much of the twentieth and all of the twenty-first centuries. Detroit began the tradition in 1934; Dallas followed suit in 1966. Recently, beginning in 2006, the NFL has scheduled a third night game on Thanksgiving with rotating teams. Fans can now enjoy NFL football all throughout the late fall holiday.
While the NFL currently dominates football on Thanksgiving, when the tradition of playing on the holiday began, it was the college elevens, not pro, that controlled the day. The institutions and myths of both the Thanksgiving holiday and football helped usher in a partnership between the two, and created an American tradition.
Americans have held days of “thanks” since the formation of the United States. In fact, in 1789, President George Washington, urged by the first Federal Congress, proclaimed November 26 a “Day of Publick Thanskgivin.” Other presidents followed suit, but the day did not become a regular occurrence until the second half of the nineteenth century. The modern Thanksgiving holiday dates to the 1860s when in the midst of the nation’s Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln mandated a national day of thanks. Americans have celebrated the day as a national holiday ever since.
It was around this time that American football began to catch popular wind. Many believe that the first college football game was played by Princeton and Rutgers on November 6, 1869. This game, however, resembled a form of association football (modern day soccer), rather than the American gridiron game many know today. Colleges played forms of the sport—some resembling association football rules, with others reminiscent of modern-day rugby—throughout the 1870s, but by the 1880s, novel rules created a new sport. In 1880, the Intercollegiate Football Association passed its Amendment # 1: the line of scrimmage. Two years later, the IFA passed Amendment # 1 of the 1882 meeting: the downs rule. While most schools had been playing a rugby-style game up until this point, with the institution of a line of scrimmage and the downs rule, American football was born.
The game, though, only emerged as a spectacle in the 1880s and 1890s, and the Thanksgiving Day games helped usher in the sport as one of the most popular in the country. The first known “football” game on Thanksgiving occurred on November 17, 1869, when players from the Young America Cricket Club and the Germantown Cricket Club in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, joined to participate in a “foot-ball match.” However, this game, like the one six weeks earlier between Rutgers and Princeton, did not resemble today’s American football. As the sport changed and became more popular—especially as East Coast Ivy League schools such as Yale, Princeton, and Harvard, or the “Big Three,”—the Thanksgiving Day game emerged as a known commodity.
In 1876, Yale and Princeton met in Hoboken, New Jersey, on Thanksgiving Day, marking the first college game away from a school’s campus. In the 1880s, the collegians at the big football schools continued to host the championship game at the end of the season in New York City. This decision, according to football scholar Michael Oriard, “transformed a sporting contest into a social event whose potential as spectacle could be exploited by inventive publishers and reporters.” Indeed, the game began to pit the nation’s two top teams against one another. But as Oriard points out, the early games did not actually bring in many fans, and New Yorkers did not adopt the game in vigorous numbers in the early 1880s. In fact, many denigrated football because it changed the purpose of the Thanksgiving tradition (itself a myth). When ministers began to let congregations out early from Thanksgiving Day services, some editorialists maligned the sport as going against religious values. People believed the game drew too many people out of the house and into the frenzied atmosphere of football spectacle.
But, by the end of the decade and the beginning of the 1890s, many had forgotten these narratives and viewed Thanksgiving football as a part of American tradition. Indeed, the newspapers trumpeted Thanksgiving football as a part of the American creed. Papers sometimes continued to disparage the pageantry of the game, but as Oriard remarks, “stinging criticism was also hype.”
And the game involved much excitement.
Days before the annual contest, students and alumni poured into New York City. Vendors sold banners, flags, and footballs. Business owners hung the colors of their teams in windows. And students and supporters, on the morning of, “paraded up Broadway and Fifth Avenue to the Polo Grounds or Manhattan Field, waving their colors, cheering their school, [and] jeering their rivals.” For example, in 1893, a parade lasting for four hours, winded through the city from Fifth Avenue, to Harlem, and ended at the Polo Grounds, where 40,000 fans watched Princeton defeat Yale 6-0.
After 1893, the game continued, but between smaller schools. However, the impact of Thanksgiving football was felt across the nation. According to the Chicago Tribune, by the mid-1890s, some 5,000 Thanksgiving football games were played annually, including high schools, athletic clubs, and colleges and universities; they also estimated that 120,000 athletes participated in these contests.
The game became the focal point of the college football season each year. However, for some, it became too big.
In the early twentieth century, when college football was undergoing reform, for a plethora of reasons, the Thanksgiving Day pageantry again came under scrutiny. The Western Conference (now the Big Ten) faculty met in 1906 in what became the Angell Conferences. Among reforms—such as limiting summer training, removing pro coaches, and reducing the price of admission to games—the faculty also opted to end the season before Thanksgiving. In the years prior to the faculty meetings, big games between the University of Chicago and the University of Michigan brought excitement on the American holiday to the Midwest. That game, especially, had become all about money, and cut against the long-believed narrative of college amateurism. According to historian John Watterson, many college teams during the late 1800s and early 1900s used “tramp players,” or players-for-hire, especially in games leading up to and including the Thanksgiving spectacle. In fact, in 1895, Watterson explains, seven out of the eleven starters on Michigan’s squad never enrolled in or attended any classes.
While the professionalism of the game led some to denigrate the sport and the Big Game, it did not lead to a deterioration of the football/Thanksgiving synergy. In 1910, the New York Times reported on forty four collegiate games on the holiday across the nation; in 1919, the paper covered fifty such events, with half of them occurring west of Illinois, illuminating the westward expansion of the gridiron game. Also, bringing more patriotic flare to the Thanksgiving Day games, Army and Navy began to play host to a holiday contest. According to sport historian Steven Pope, the 1919 Army-Navy game “was one of the most widely discussed sporting events in American history to date.” Indeed, 45,000 fans packed into New York’s Polo Grounds to watch Navy defeat rival Army 6-0 on two field goals. Seven years later, 110,000 fans poured into Chicago’s Soldier Field to witness the two military academies play to a 21-21 tie. And in 1934, when the University of Illinois star fullback Red Grange jumped to a professional career, he made his debut with the Chicago Bears at Cubs Park in the Windy City against the cross-town rival, Chicago Cardinals. A standing-room-only crowd of 36,000 fans spent their Thanksgiving holiday watching, while 20,000 others could not even get into the stadium. And soon, many other professional teams saw the game as a way to bring in numerous fans.
By this point, although the Big Game of the 1880s and 1890s had disappeared, Thanksgiving football had become a tradition. And, this tradition had significant meaning for turn-of-the twentieth century Americans.
In the late nineteenth century, the United States underwent much cultural and structural change. According to Pope, Americans looked “for new devices and traditions to define its meaning and ensure a unified national culture.” Thanksgiving football offered an “invented tradition,” as E. J. Hobsbawm and T.O. Ranger might label it, for U.S. citizens to celebrate American values. As Pope describes:
Advocates maintained that football touched a deep, vital core within the national soul, perhaps because of its combination of aggressiveness, territoriality and a fluid interplay between community and individualism.
Both football and Thanksgiving came to be seen as long-standing American traditions important to the formation of the state, and in particular “expression[s] of late nineteenth-century civil religion.” They both “affirmed adaptability and physical prowess as defining American characteristics.”
The 1919 Army-Navy Thanksgiving game, for example, helped define the nation during an era of supposed social unraveling. The year saw the rise of labor unrest, violent racism across the country, and the emergence of the American Socialist Party. As Pope explains, football on Thanksgiving offered “another national tradition” that was “eagerly greeted by supporters of a political and economic system on the ropes.” Instead of worrying about the fate of the nation, Thanksgiving football offered Americans significant cultural meaning.
And the media played a significant role in codifying this tradition. As Oriard demonstrates, coverage of the game rapidly expanded in the late nineteenth century. Newspapers saw the game as an opportunity to sell its papers, and the sport thus grew in popularity. A similar phenomenon occurred with television as the game continued throughout the twentieth century. While college football continued to be important, it was the professional game that took advantage of the new medium. And television seemed to ease tensions of football cutting against the supposed import of the Thanksgiving holiday. Now, people could be entertained by gridiron spectacle while not leaving the home and their families.
As such, Americans came more and more to see football and Thanksgiving as a given. Football was meant to be played on Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving was meant to include football. In 2004, for instance, at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, the NFL included a float, “Football as Americana.” This new national tradition, forged in the late nineteenth century, and quickly adopted as an age-old practice, has become a new cultural exercise of traditional American values and ideologies.
Andrew D. Linden is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Adrian College. He is the co-editor of Sport in American History. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and can be followed on Twitter @AndrewDLinden. He also maintains his own website at www.andrewdlinden.com.