In 1905, President Teddy Roosevelt stepped in and saved football when it was plagued by severe injuries. Who will save it this time around?
A century ago, it took a certain type of attitude to play football.
“The game was brutal, it was violent,” says author John J. Miller. “In the year 1905, 18 people died, and they weren’t seen as freak accidents as much as the collateral damage that comes with a rough sport, almost inevitably.”
But 18 deaths proved to be too much collateral damage. There were calls to ban the sport, even at Harvard, which at the time had one of the country’s most popular teams.
Miller’s 2011 book “The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football” details how when faced with the possible extinction of the game, President Roosevelt stepped in to save it.
“Roosevelt recognized that it was violent…but he loved the sport, he thought it was a social good, in fact. And so he took action to help preserve it and reform it,” he says.
Roosevelt, who himself never played the game, lobbied both publicly and behind the scenes to improve player safety. The result was a new rules committee, and new rules, including the forward pass, which helped spread players out on the field.
The effort seemingly worked, as deaths started to decline.
“And the success of the reform efforts from a century ago suggest to me at least that football might be able to solve the problems it has now,” says Miller.
Football’s biggest problem right now is concern over the long-term effects of brain trauma, prompting no shortage of ideas for ways to better protect players.
Jeff Nussbaum shared a few in an article published in Washington Monthly, including doing away with the three-point stance. That’s the position linemen start each play in, where they have a hand touching the ground. The setup helps generate forward momentum and an explosive start, like a sprinter coming out of the blocks. Nussbaum wants to see linemen start upright instead.
“The thinking is, instead of butting heads every play, they’ll start by engaging each other’s arms and shoulders, and head contact, instead of being the goal of the play, will actually be incidental to it,” says Nussbaum.
The battle between the offensive and defensive line will be more tactical. More sumo-like.
“The sumo wrestling image is a perfect one, except in one big difference,” Nussbaum continues. “Because coming out of a two-point stance requires players to be faster and more mobile, you may actually get lighter offensive and defensive lineman, which again reduces the chances of injury, reduces the trauma of the impact.”
Sumo wrestlers and most NFL players do share one trait: a thick, thick neck.
John Wood, who played defensive line at the University of Michigan, says younger athletes in all sports should pay more attention to that part of the body.
“The neck, the head, the musculature involved in that area, we strengthen that area…we can also reduce the likelihood and severity of concussions,” says Wood, who now runs strength and conditioning clinics for players and coaches.
He points to a study of over 6,000 high school athletes across a range of sports that found for every one pound increase in neck strength, the odds of that player getting a concussion decreased by 5%.
But the challenge facing football players goes way beyond just diagnosed concussions.
“The term ‘concussion crisis’ is one of my pet peeves, because concussions are really the tip of the iceberg,” reasons Dr. Robert Stern with Boston University’s research center on Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. CTE is a neurological disease that’s been diagnosed in many retired football players, and it appears to be linked to not only concussions.
“What is the biggest concern in my mind is the overall exposure to repetitive hits to the head, including concussions, but much more commonly, subconcussive trauma,” Stern says.
All the smaller blows a player experiences seem to be adding up over time. Stern cautions that research into CTE is still in its infancy, and it isn’t clear why some players develop it, while others don’t. Results from one small study point to higher risks down the line for kids who start playing tackle football before the age of 12.
And that leads to another safety proposal.
“While we’re acknowledging that head injuries are something that we have to deal with, we are getting kids started playing the sport earlier and earlier. That is unnecessary, almost irresponsible, really,” says Bill Connelly, who covers college football for the website SB Nation. He says there is no reason for pee wees to be in pads and helmets.
“Flag football is still on the table,” says Connelly. “Things that emphasize technique and strategy and route running for the passing game, and all of those things, that can still exist. They don’t need to be banging heads, they don’t need to be tackling each other.”
Lots of youth football leagues aren’t removing tackling from the game, but they are taking steps to try to make it safer. There’s a major national initiative called Heads Up Football, which seeks to train players and coaches at all levels on a new approach to taking down opponents.
Rather than leading with the helmet, Heads Up uses repetition and drills to teach players a more upright method for tackling.
The group behind Heads Up is USA Football, a non-profit created in part with money from the NFL. It has released data showing reduced injuries when teams use its method.
“It is a joke. I hope nobody buys that,” says Mel Owens, who played 9 years in the NFL as a linebacker.
“Heads Up? There’s no such thing as keeping your head up and you won’t get a concussion. Because in the heat of the battle, in the heat of the game, things are moving too fast,” says Owens.
He has two sons, and for now, he’s refusing to let them play tackle, because he says no matter what ideas you throw out there, there’s just no way to make football safer.
“You can’t change the game, because that is the game. That is the game. The game is, I’m trying to hit you hard. That’s the game.”
Afterall, it’s hard to sanitize a game that relies on dragging people to the ground.
But the NFL has made efforts. In recent years, it has increased penalties for hitting so-called ‘defenseless players’ and moved up the kick-off line to decrease high-impact collisions. Teams also practice less in full-pads during the season.
Author John J. Miller says the game is on the right path.
“We have to start by recognizing there is no such thing as a risk-free activity. Football is a rough sport, and even as we reform it, and possibly make it safer for the participants, it will never be a risk-free activity,” he says.
One challenge facing the sport right now is there’s no single person, no Teddy Roosevelt-like figure, capable of influencing football. If the game is going to reform, Miller says it’s going to have to come from players, leagues and fans demanding a change.