Thursday, December 24, 2009

TR and American Football

The more I learn about Teddy Roosevelt, the more I like him. I have been watching Ken Burns' National Parks. This film has elevated TR to hero status for me. Much of the stuff about him I already knew, but it is great to see it all in one place and so well arrange. One thing that I didn't know about him (that I learned by listening to NPR) is that he saved American football.

In 1905, there were close to 20 deaths on college football field. The death were related to brawls, gang tackles and to all around unsportsmanlike behavior. TR threatened to outlaw the sport not because he wasn't a fan but because he was. The sport fits right in with his manly shtick. Ten of his fellow Rough Riders were footballers. Football was still a fringe sport, at the time, being played by Ivy League College students. It didn't become popular until major newspaper actually printed a sports pages later in the century.

In 1906, upon TR's urging, the American Football Rules Committee met and changed the rules of the game to make it more safe. The forward pass was created which is really amazing. It was just a running game. The distance to get a first down was changed from five to ten. I am not sure how this made it safer. Perhaps, ten yards made passing more viable, certainly it made it a more interesting game. The biggest safety improvement was the banning of the gang tackle.

The biggest danger to modern day footballers is probably brain damage so much so that many pros are donating their brains to Boston University's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy. Some of the brains of 40 year old football players show deterioration that one would expect of an 80 year old Alzheimer's patient. It makes me wonder what kind of rule changes are coming to the game to compensate for this.

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