College Football Safety: An Annotated Op-Ed

By Andrew McGregor

Today I published a piece in the Washington Post’s Made by History section considering issues related to college football and how past reforms only temporarily addressed concerns about the sport’s safety. While I rely on some of my own research to make my argument, I mention a few developments in the history of college football that rely on the work of other scholars. I want to use this brief blog post to call attention to those works as well as share some sources from my own research. Let’s think of it as an annotation of my op-ed.

Early in the piece I note that college football is nearly 150 years old. The first football game (which was really more like proto-football) took place between Rutgers and Princeton in 1869; next year will be its sesquicentennial. This is a common story in many sport history textbooks, but is explored in-depth by Ronald Smith in Sports and Freedom: The Rise of Big-Time College Athletics (1988). Football was not immediately popular, of course, and its rules evolved over the next 50 years. I cite a number of articles from the Journal of Sport History that highlight the controversy of football for moral, ethical, and safety reasons. Hal D. Sears’ 1992 article, “The Moral Threat of Intercollegiate Sports: An 1893 Poll of Ten College Presidents, and the End of “The Champion Football Team of the Great West,” explores how a number of small religious colleges embraced Harvard President’s Charles Eliot’s critiques of the game. My alma mater, Baker University, was among those colleges that chose to eliminate football for moral purposes. Baker, who beat the University of Kansas in the first intercollegiate football game in that state, suspended its program from 1894-1909. Baker is now the NAIA’s second winningest football program/

As Sears documents, Baker and its pious small college peers were ahead of the curve. Less than a decade later, the sport faced a new crisis that focused on safety in 1905. John Sayle Watterson, explores this crisis in his 2000 article, “The Gridiron Crisis of 1905: Was It Really a Crisis?” as well as his important book College Football: History, Spectacle, Controversy (2000. Watterson sheds light on the number of football deaths and injuries during this period and how universities and reformers reacted. These reactions varied by university and region. As Roberta Park illustrates, in her article “From Football to Rugby—and Back, 1906-1919: The University of California-Stanford University Response to the “Football Crisis of 1905″ (1984), many schools on the West Coast turned to rugby as an alternative to football because they believed it was safer.

Theodore Roosevelt was involved in the 1905 football crisis. As Katie Zezima notes in her 2014 Washington Post article,  his son played football at Harvard and was the victim of some rough play. This inspired a White House conference on football safety later that fall. John J. Miller asserts that Roosevelt’s involvement was imperative in his book, The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football (2011). Although scholars debate his exact role, Roosevelt’s rhetoric and emphasis on the “Strenuous Life” underscores the leading justification of football as a social-cultural tool during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Gail Bederman’s Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917 (1996), Clifford Putney’s Muscular Christianity: Manhood and Sports in protestant America, 1880-1920 (2001), and Donald Mrozek’s classic Sport and American Mentality, 1880-1910 (1983), provide insight into this cultural and political milieu.

My research on Bud Wilkinson in the 1950s and 1960s extends these arguments to the Cold War era. While I rely on the work of football scholars, like Jeffrey Montez de Oca and Kurt Kemper, to situate the sport in the political and cultural moment, I also connect Wilkinson’s role as coach and director of John F. Kennedy’s President Council for Physical Fitness with recent scholarship on physical culture, such as Shelly McKenzie’s Getting Physical: The Rise of Fitness Culture in America (2013) and Rachel Louise Moran’s Governing Bodies: American Politics and the Shaping of the Modern Physique (2018) to show how his vision of Cold War toughness became institutionalized.

Wilkinson explicitly made many of these connections himself on an episode of his own television show in 1958. Thanks to the digitization efforts of the Oklahoma Historical Society, I was able to watch and then extensively quote from his response to a mother’s question about whether football is safe for her son. Here is a trimmed down version of that source:

These sources allowed me to the hint at the cultural and political framework of college football, show how various people across multiple eras perceived its social utility, and point to some reform efforts. From there I was able to draw my own conclusions and offer my analysis of current events. As I note above, and in the full Washington Post piece, football has faced challenges and undergone reform during multiple eras. It has survived each period by altering the game, yet its culture has remained slow to change and the game has consistently found new ways to become more violent. To me, this suggests that in order to “fix” or “save” football, we must address its social, cultural, and political framework as much as its rules and policies. Making a lasting effort at turning football into a safe activity is as a cultural and political project and requires more than scientific and technological intervention.

For many scholars, blog posts and op-eds are challenging to write. My goal in writing this post is to help demystify this form of writing by revealing the scholarship that inspired and support my finished piece. I hope that revealing this skeleton provides insight into how my public facing scholarship relies extensively on the work of others despite its lack of documentation. Similarly, I hope this annotation gives those of you interested in further reading about this topic a place to start.

Andrew McGregor is a Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Texas A&M University–Texarkana and the founder and coeditor of this blog. You can find him on Twitter at @admcgregor85


2 thoughts on “College Football Safety: An Annotated Op-Ed

  1. Pingback: College Football Safety: An Annotated Op-Ed | History on the mysteryStream

  2. Pingback: Weekend Reads (September 8-9) | Matt Edmonds

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