in: Character, Knowledge of Men, Podcast

• Last updated: September 25, 2021

Art of Manliness Podcast Episode #37: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football with John Miller

While it’s now arguably America’s favorite pastime, football came close to extinction only a short time after it started. Severe injuries and even death were common in the early days of football as players used little or no protection and the rules of the game encouraged ruthless play. Many university presidents and other social leaders called for the game’s prohibition and came close to getting their way, that is until President Theodore Roosevelt stepped in.

Our guest today has written a book on how TR helped save football. His name is John Miller and his book is called The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football. The book’s got one of the coolest covers I’ve seen in awhile:

Book cover of The Big Scrum by John Miller.

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of ‘The Art of Manliness’ podcast. Well, it’s now America’s favorite past time, football was actually on the verge of extinction as soon as the game was developing around the turn of the 20th century. Severe injuries and even death were common in the early days of football as players used little or no protection when they played in the rules, the game encouraged ruthless play.

Many university presidents and other social leaders called for the game’s prohibition and they came really close to getting their way. That is until President Teddy Roosevelt stepped in. Our guest today has written a book on how T.R. helped saved American football. His name is John Miller and his book is called the The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football. Well, John welcome to the show.

John Miller: Thanks.

Brett McKay: Glad to have you here. So let’s talk about the state of American football at the turn of the 20th century, this is right when, the very beginning of the sport when it was first developing but right from the get-go the game had its critics and there were people actually calling for its elimination. You know, why were so many people, why do so many people hate football at this time, what was going on.

John Miller: Football wasn’t incredibly violent sport, a century ago, little more than a century ago. We hear a lot about violence in football today with concussions and long-term health issues and so on and so forth. The problems of today are dwarfed by the problems football had in, at the turn of the century. In 1905, 18 people died playing football. Dropped at from the college level to sandlot games, 18 people died playing football. And then of course there were all kind of injuries on top of that because they had concussions back then too; broken bones. It was a really violent game, it was more like the rugby’s and the game we know today, a lot of pushing and shoving and big piles of men giving each other elbows and so and so forth equipment was different. But it was a violent sport.

And so this prohibition movement springs up to outlaw football. It’s led by Charles Elliot who is the president of Harvard University, one of the most important man in the history of higher education, when we think of Harvard as a great American University, maybe The Great American University, it’s really kind of this guy who was president of Harvard for four years. Apart from anything he did in the classroom and with academics and so forth, he hated football. He thought it as a terrible sport and the game not fit for gentlemen. He was joined in this anti-football prohibition effort by The Nation Magazine by muckraking journalists…who looked at these casualty figures, and the fact that people were dying playing the sport, they compared it to gladiatorial combat in the Roman Amphitheatre and they wanted to outlaw football.

Brett McKay: Wow! So a lot of these guys were part of the progressive movement, right at that time?

John Miller: Yeah. So this was in many ways an early progressive movement cause. And we find that it, its impulses are aggressive in the sense that it identified what it took to be a social problem and it’s solution was simply to outlaw, to ban it. And that’s what they tried to do.

Brett McKay: So you said that, in one year alone 18 men died, but during this time when football was kind of up in the air, I mean it’s like from the late 1800s to like 19…whatever when the final rule changes were made, how many men actually died playing football?

John Miller: Well, it’s hard to get a precise number, but in – and in the back of my book I have a chart and you know, 1905 was 18 people, 1906 there was 11, so we are seeing you know, death of a dozen being kind of typical at this time. And you know, it ranged from big football programs like Georgia where there was a very prominent player death in the late 1800s to Sandlot games played by kids. So the statistics are – we have some numbers around but the bottom line is these guys were dying playing the game.

Brett McKay: And what’s that compared to like deaths with football today, I mean…

John Miller: Well, it still happens today but these are more freak accident types of injuries, you know, there was the heat exhaustion death in the NFL a few years ago, you know, I remember when I was younger, Mike Utley from the Detroit Lions had his neck broken in the game, that was not a death but it’s a pretty serious injury. He also did recognize that today millions and millions of people play football. Back then it was a popular sport, it was becoming extremely popular but there were very many fewer players. So you had more people dying and fewer players compared today where there’s a lot more players in the world that are still freak injuries. It’s much less of a problem now.

Brett McKay: Okay. So football at this time, there was a lot, I mean it could have snuffed out, there’s a lot of criticism, lot of pressure on to prohibit it and this is when President Theodore Roosevelt steps in, why was football so important to Roosevelt, I mean he was president, why was this such a pressing national concern for him to actually get involved and throw his hat in the arena and try to help it out.

John Miller: Well that’s a story of the book. Roosevelt attends his first football game in 1876; he was an 18 year old Harvard freshman. He gets on a train in Cambridge with a bunch of his friends. They travel down to New Haven, Connecticut and they watch the second ever football game played between Harvard and Yale. This is of course one of the great story rivalries in college athletics. And he attends the second ever game, first time he’s ever seen football. And he likes it. He likes the sport, he’s still learning a lot about and he’s actually, he suffered the agony of defeat because Harvard loses that day. Everyone thought that they were going to win. They thought that they were better team but Yale was this sort of upper school beat them that day and this frustrates Roosevelt. He wrote a letter to his mother in which he expresses his frustration. But he likes football, he thinks this is a need sport. He doesn’t play it himself because he is too small, he also wears glasses.

So he is not fit to play the game himself. He does other things. But he enjoys it as a spectator. And he kind of grows up with the sport. In the 1880s, 1890s a lot of colleges are starting to adopt the game more and more people are showing up, the Thanksgiving day football game is starting to become a tradition, 10s of thousands of people turn out for big games between Harvard and Yale or Yale and Princeton or what have you.

And Roosevelt is just part of this trend, he loves the sport. He also knows that it has a problem with violence but he says, we need to recognize that rough sports are good. They are good for boys, they help turn boys into men. In fact he believes in rough sports, and football so much that when he goes of to recruit the Rough Riders. In 1898 he leaves Washington DC goes out to San Antonio and we know the story where he recruits cowboys and westerners and so forth to become the Rough Riders and he does, if you read his memoir on that period, just simply entitled the Rough Riders. He also point out that he is looking for football players. And he in fact recruits a number of them to become Rough Riders with him and they go into Cuba and have their great moment of victory there, Roosevelt becomes the war hero, selected governor of New York.

As a result and he gives a speech on the strenuous life, maybe the most famous speech he ever delivered in his life. The strenuous life in which he says it’s important to lead a vigorous life and active life, it’s good for people but more important it’s good for America, if it’s made up of men who lead strenuous lives, who don’t shirk responsibility, who embrace challenges and lead a strenuous life. There is a very faith in the speech he gives, he lives in Chicago, he then takes his speech and he translates it for children in a children’s magazine called St. Nicholas’s very popular children’s magazine at that time, wildly read.

And in that magazine when he is giving the kids version of the strenuous life, he told boys, just go play football. He says, “It’ll help you make you great now, help you make a great Americans”. So he’s a true believer in football. He likes it as a fan, he thinks it’s good for America because it turns boys into men and it turns them into good men who can fight wars, who can defend their country and make America great. Well, when he’s president the problem of violence in football continues and this movement to ban it gains some momentum.

So in 1905 he summons to the White House, the three coaches from the biggest football programs of America at that time Yale, Harvard and Princeton. The coach of Yale was Walter Camp, the legendary Walter Camp who was one of the sort of the founding father of football, the Abner Doubleday of the game in some ways. So Walter Camp is there at White House for meeting the other coaches there as well. And Roosevelt says football is on trial. And he says to these coaches, you guys need to so something to save it. He doesn’t told them exactly what to do. But they leave the White House. They agree that they are going to try something rather they weren’t fairly sure what. The season continues. This meeting was in October of 1905. They finished out the season that winter they create the organization that becomes the NCAA. And they pass a series of rule changes, the most important of which is the forward pass. Up to that point quarterbacks couldn’t throw the ball down field to receivers that was the end of legal play. You could toss it laterally backwards to running back but you could not throw it down the field, there was no such thing as the wide receiver. Well this changed the game and transformed, it transformed it from a sport that looked like rugby into the modern game that Americans know and love today. And there was Roosevelt at the center of it making it possible.

Brett McKay: And were any equipment changes that sort of taking place around those time as well because before they really didn’t wear, they were just like wore bandanas on their head and maybe some leather –.

John Miller: The era of the leather had…was a little bit in the future, but this was a transitional period and football originally nobody wore any kind of protection then you started getting players who would grow their hair extra long because there was a little bit extra padding or they would do little things to their jerseys and one team had its players so handled from suitcases on to the jerseys so they could grab each other and pull each other forward through lines coming, there was all these innovations and there was actually little while where Spalding, the equipment company started making nose guards, they were kind of like shoehorns on your nose, that’s sort of ridiculous. There is a picture of one of these in the book. And some face mask and helmet.

But there was a bit of stigma attached to players who would put on these things, right. They weren’t man enough to play without this equipment. But over time this became more and more accepted and pads were introduced. But and the era we are talking about we are moving from basically no equipment, no gear, no protection to modest forms of it. And over time the football players began to look like the players we see on TV today.

Brett McKay: So that was really interesting too is that Roosevelt wasn’t the only US president that kind of had a hand in helping football along. The other one was Woodrow Wilson which was kind of surprising because when we think of Woodrow Wilson they kind of think of him as a pencil pushing nerd kind of pacifist, right. But he was a fan at the game as well.

John Miller: Exactly. I was really surprised to learn that. When I started working on this book I knew that Roosevelt would be at the center of it, he is a great advocate of football that I knew he would be the main character of the book and I need the contours of the story that I was going to tell. But as I did my research I discovered that Woodrow Wilson was a huge football fan. He went to Princeton as we know, a school that had a vigorous football program, an ambitious football program, it want to be the best in the county. And as people criticized football there was Woodrow Wilson in the 1870s writing editorials in the student newspaper about why football was great. And this was actually a major, he didn’t just write one editorial he wrote a bunch of them defending football from its critic. And he continued to do that. He graduated from Princeton became a professor.

And when he went to different schools he was affiliated with the football club. He would help out the team; he would show up at the games, he would cheer for them. He eventually when he went back to Princeton as a professor and we know what came of him he began to disengage from that a little bit just because he was getting so busy but he was a public defender of football. He would engage in debates in front of city clubs and they would have, groups would have debates and you know, “Is football’s too violent? Should it be banned?” And Wilson would show up and he would argue, no it’s a great sport, we need it. But you are right it plays against type; this is not what you would expect of the Woodrow Wilson we know of primarily from his presidency.

Brett McKay: Now that was interesting too that it took the, you know, two I guess big progressive leaders of the time Roosevelt and Wilson, they are the ones who were defending football from the other progressives, really.

John Miller: That’s right. Now Wilson was not as directly involved in the sports salvation. He was a fan of it and in, you know, he did cheerlead and he engaged in debate, it was Roosevelt who really played the key role here. And say what you read about Roosevelt’s politics became a long debate about that and his progressivism and so forth. The Roosevelt who defends in football is a great manly character as red blooded American and you can just, it’s everything we love about Roosevelt. His praise of rough sport, his belief in outdoor life, the vigor of life, the need to lead a strenuous life, it’s completely consistent with his belief.

Brett McKay: So let’s fast forward to today, 100 years later, it seems like it’s déjà vu, we are having the same conversation about football whether it’s too dangerous, and if we need to make changes to the rules, does having both in the NFL and in the NCAA and what do you think after doing, writing this book and kind of getting acquainted with Roosevelt and his view of football, how do you think T. R. what would you think T. R. would think of this conversation we are having about football today?

John Miller: He would think for one thing, it’s got nothing on the controversy he was dealing with. Football’s problem today is nothing like the problem it was a 100 years ago. You know, football has a problem I suppose with concussions and so forth and there may be some, there maybe a debate we are having about this. But he would fundamentally say, football is a rough sport and we cannot eliminate all risk from our lives and that it is the risk that you take in playing the sport that is in a special part of what it is and we cannot ever lose sight of that.

We cannot make it totally 100% safe for everybody who plays. And this is just a part of living. It’s true when you walk across the street, you can’t be completely guaranteed of your safety when you walk across the street, but yet we need to do that from time to time in our lives. And football teaches great things to kids. All sports do really, it reaches them teamwork, it teaches them how to put up with adversity, it teaches them how to deal with defeat. It teaches them all kinds of things. In fact we know things today that Roosevelt didn’t know back them. Modern research teaches us that kids who play sports in high school earn more as adults. They are more likely to vote as citizens later on in life. There are series of benefits that social scientists can track back to participation in sports.

As a parent when we talk, you know, I have kids who play a bunch of different sports. When we talk about why do we have them do it? I often say them, you know, there are easy ones, physical fitness that’s good for them. We also talk about these intangible characteristics. We think it makes them better people, they learn about team work, they learn all kinds of, sports teaches them all kind of things that they can’t learn in a book.

And here is the evidence that actually, there is a payoff later on, you earn more money as an adult. Why is that? Because maybe they learn how to compete and in America it’s important to learn how to compete. I don’t know what the reasons are but we have data that actually suggests this is good for kids. And Roosevelt knew that intuitively as the way I think we’ll kind of know intuitively that sports can be great for kids and it teaches life lessons.

Brett McKay: Alright, well, John we are at the end of our time, but thank you very much it’s really fascinating. John’s book is called The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football and I am guessing this is going to be available April 12th.

John Miller: It is available April 12th everywhere.

Brett McKay: Everywhere. So go out and get it. Well, John thanks again for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

John Miller: Thank you very much.

Brett McKay: That wraps up another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast, for more manly tips and advice make sure to check out the art of manliness website @ and until next time stay manly.

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