100 years of modern football

By the time the 1905 Harvard-Yale game ended, American football was in a state of crisis.

At Yale and Harvard, the game was as popular as ever. On Nov. 25, 1905, roughly 43,000 spectators watched the Bulldogs take on the Crimson in Boston with the national championship on the line. The New York Times offered constant coverage of the two collegiate giants, reporting on their practices as well as their games.

But across the country, the tide was turning against a game many considered barbaric and unacceptably dangerous. In that season alone, 18 deaths and 149 serious injuries were attributed to football. At colleges across the country, including Harvard, a movement was afoot to ban the game.

Tomorrow’s meeting between Yale and Harvard at the Yale Bowl, the 122nd Game in the series, will mark another chapter in the two schools’ storied rivalry. But it also marks a little-known anniversary — of a season when Harvard and Yale were at the center of a set of events that entirely transformed the game of football.

A college game for ‘college men’

On the campuses of Harvard, Yale and Princeton, there was no subject more controversial than football. Its proponents — reaching all the way up to the White House and President Theodore Roosevelt, Harvard 1880 — saw football as a game that shaped boys into “college men,” instilling, as the president said in a 1907 speech, “the courage that dares as well as the courage that endures.” Its opponents, who included then-Harvard President Charles Eliot, saw the game as a barbaric pastime that threatened the academic life of America’s universities.

In 1905, these competing viewpoints came to a head, said John Sayle Watterson, a professor of sports history at James Madison University and an expert on the origins of college football.

“It developed into a serious controversy over both safety and sportsmanship in college football, and the role of college football in the life of the university,” Watterson said.

With no forward pass, and only five yards for a first down, the rules of the game bred a style of play that centered on the two teams struggling with one another near the line of scrimmage.

“It was very close-packed, power football,” said journalist Mark Bernstein, who is making a documentary about Ivy League football. “It was a lot of pushing the other guys out of the way, and running over them. There was a fair amount of sharp elbows being thrown.”

At Yale, perhaps more than any other school in the country, this brand of football had become entrenched. Walter Camp 1880, Yale’s coach-turned-athletic advisor, played a central role in developing the rules of the game. And the Bulldogs were dominant: According to Yale’s Athletics Department, the Elis lost only three games in the five seasons leading up to 1905. If anyone had an interest in keeping the game as it was, it was Camp and his Bulldogs.

But in early October, Camp — along with five others from Harvard and Princeton — was summoned to the White House. In the wake of public outcry, Roosevelt, whose son, Theodore Jr., was playing on the freshman team at Harvard, asked for help cleaning up the game.

The New York Times’ account of the meeting reported that “Mr. Roosevelt, in beginning his talk to his guests, told them that he liked the game, but he felt that something should be done to reform the rules, especially in the interest of fair play and the discouragement of rough play, and asked them to undertake to start a movement to that end.”

“Public sentiment,” the Times continued, “is yearly growing against the brutality of the game, he declared, and the death of a man in order to win a game will result sooner or later in universal condemnation of it as a part of college athletics.”

Camp and the others at the meeting agreed to help push for a more sportsmanlike game. But they did not agree to any real changes, only announcing that they recognized an obligation “to carry out in letter and in spirit the rules of the game of football relating to the roughness, holding and foul play.”

Critics of the game were skeptical; Harvard’s president Eliot remarked that “it is hard to bring about a reform through the very men who have long known about the existing evils, and have been largely responsible for their continuance.”

Controversy at The Game

As was typical at the time, Yale came into the game against Harvard as the favorites. The Bulldogs had won three in a row against the Crimson coming into the 1905 matchup. And over the course of the entire season, the Elis had allowed just four points total.

Although the Crimson gave Yale its toughest scare of the season, the Bulldogs scraped their way to a 6-0 victory, earning the national championship. But on the way to victory, Yale also offered a vivid example of the violent play that had so horrified the game’s critics.

It came on a punt, on which Harvard’s Francis Burr had apparently called a fair catch, waving the Yale defenders off. But the referee never recognized the signal, and Burr was smashed violently in the face by Yale’s Jim Quill — who, in turn, later accused a Harvard player of biting his finger at another point in the game. According to the Boston Globe’s report of the game, the home crowd was furious, calling for Quill to be ejected.

“It looked to Harvard fans that it had been an intentional foul, when they saw blood spurting out of his nose,” said Ronald Smith, a retired Penn State historian who has written extensively about the 1905 season.

Henry Higginson, a member of the Harvard Board of Overseers, came down to the field and, Smith said, “more or less demanded that [Harvard coach] Bill Reid take his team off the field, and Reid refused.”

Roosevelt was furious, too. Along with a violent Penn-Harvard game and, most tragically, the death of a Union College player in a game against New York University, the president saw that his meeting in October had done little to improve the public image of football. He called Harvard coach Bill Reid to the White House for another meeting.

According to a story recounted in Bernard Corbett and Paul Simpson’s recent book “The Only Game That Matters,” Roosevelt asked why Harvard had been behaving violently, citing the example of a Crimson player, Bartol Parker, who threw a punch against Penn.

“Mr. President, there were extenuating circumstances,” Reid said, according to the account. “Mr. Parker, our center, was kicked in the balls.”

But despite Reid’s protests, the push for reform continued — and now, it was coming from less friendly corners. The president of NYU called a meeting of several eastern universities asking whether football should be reformed or banned altogether. Columbia’s renowned president Nicholas Murray Butler outlawed the sport over Thanksgiving break, provoking a near-riot among the student body. (He did not say whether the Lions’ 53-0 loss to Yale played any role in the decision.) The University of California and Stanford decided that students should play rugby instead.

Creating the modern Game

Even if it was the Harvard-Yale game that helped push the cause of reform along, the two powerhouses were reluctant to trust the reformers. At Harvard, a large contingent — including President Eliot — appeared dead-set on ending once and for all the Cambridge school’s association with a game long dominated by their peers in New Haven. Yale, on the other hand, thought that the same commitment to cleaning up the game that it had showed at the White House would be enough.

But as the winter continued, the two schools recognized that they would either help shape the broader changes to football, or watch their own preeminent place in the game die. While Camp was by no means an out-and-out reformer, he also recognized the need for some changes — particularly new rules requiring 10 yards, rather than five, for a first down and stricter rules on tackling.

In December, then-Yale President Arthur Twining Hadley wrote in a letter to Walter Camp’s wife that Yale should fight for those changes — even if had to create its own form of the game and cut off competition against Harvard.

“Yale is this year in especially good position for such action, because the public demands changes of just this kind; because Yale has unjustly been held responsible for failure to make these changes,… and finally, because our successes during the last two years under the old rules will do away with all possible imputation of an unsportsmanlike motive,” Hadley wrote.

But Camp, who had exerted virtual control over the rules of football in the past, could no longer determine how the game evolved. For the proponents of full-scale reform, he was a villain; according to the Penn State historian Smith, Harvard President Eliot wrote a letter to Columbia’s butler attributing the failure to reform wholly to the fact that Camp was “deficient in moral sensibility.” By January, Camp’s rules committee was forced to compromise with the more ardent reformers.

And it was Harvard who ended up with the upper hand. Unable to beat Yale under the old rules, Reid resolved to change them. In addition to the longer first down, the Harvard coach pushed through changes that Camp detested, like the creation of the forward pass. The game was shortened from 70 minutes to 60 minutes, a “neutral zone” was created, and the rules committee was soon transformed into the body now known as the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

According to Smith, Yale had little choice but to accept Reid’s changes. The Harvard faculty had already voted in favor of banning the sport, and without the proposed changes, it appeared likely that Harvard would quit playing football. Given the value Yale placed on playing — and usually beating — Harvard each year, that was an outcome the University could not accept, Smith said.

“Yale had to go along, and Camp, although he dragged his heels screaming that he didn’t want a forward pass … had to go along with it, or Harvard was going to ban football,” Smith said.

In Cambridge, Reid’s changes offered hope that the reforms would finally end Yale’s dominance against the Crimson. In November 1906, the Crimson entered New Haven with high hopes.

But even with the rules changed in their favor, Harvard did not prevail. The Bulldogs won again, by the score of 6-0 — and the key to their victory was the forward pass.

The football team of 1905, pictured above, played a central role in that year’s controversy over the game, which resulted in the creation of the NCAA and the establishment of the 10-yard first down.
YDN 1905
The football team of 1905, pictured above, played a central role in that year’s controversy over the game, which resulted in the creation of the NCAA and the establishment of the 10-yard first down.

Comments