Luther Spoehr: Review of John J. Miller’s “The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football” (Harper, 2011)


Luther Spoehr, a Senior Lecturer at Brown University and an HNN Book Editor, co-teaches a course on the history of intercollegiate athletics.

Long, long ago—before the Big Ten had 12 teams and the Big Twelve had 10; back when Knute Rockne was still learning to drop-kick—college football was in crisis.  The crisis had many parts:  already professionalism and commercialism had made inroads into the supposedly “amateur” game.  Players were getting money and perks, coaches were being overpaid (in 1905 Bill Reid, Harvard’s coach, made more than any professor on campus and almost as much as President Charles William Eliot), and rules about everything from how the game could be played to player eligibility ranged from ill-defined to non-existent.  Six-year varsity careers were not unheard of.  Sometimes those careers were compiled at several schools.  In 1896 the great Fielding Yost, enrolled West Virginia University, transferred to Lafayette in time to help the Leopards snap the University of Pennsylvania’s 36-game winning streak, then transferred right back.

The worst aspect of the crisis—because it was the most public and most dramatic—was the game’s increasingly violent character, evidenced by the growing number of players seriously injured or even killed on the field.  As football had evolved from its beginnings (the game considered to be the first intercollegiate contest, between Princeton and Rutgers, took place in 1869) as a kind of combination of soccer and rugby, it was increasingly characterized by “mass play,” most notably the infamous “flying wedge.”  Even when played within the “rules” of the time, it was a bloody affair.  And with players crowded together, battling back and forth on a very small part of the field, opportunities for punching, kicking, biting, and other activities outside the rules were numerous—and exploited.

So, both inside and outside the university, voices began calling for the game to be reformed, even abolished.  The most prestigious voice was that of Harvard’s President Eliot, who decried football’s turn toward professionalism and spectacle, and away from what he saw as sport’s true purpose: participation by real students whose play would promote their fitness and character.  “What bothered Eliot most, it seems,” says John J. Miller in his lively, well-written chronicle of the crisis, “was competition—and how it motivated players to conduct themselves in ways he considered unworthy of gentlemen….Even the behavior of spectators appalled him.  Before the start of a game against Yale in Cambridge, he heard a group of his students chant, ‘Three cheers for Harvard and down with Yale!’  He regarded this as bad mannered….So he proposed an alternative:  ‘Why shouldn’t it be better to sing “Three cheers for Harvard and one for Yale”?’  His suggestion did not catch on.”

Eliot, whose suggestion, Miller says, “burnished his reputation as a killjoy,” serves as Miller’s main foil to Teddy Roosevelt.  TR was president when the crisis came to a boil in 1905, and by working mainly behind the scenes, Miller says, he “saved football,” an outcome Miller seems to regard unreservedly as a Good Thing.   Focusing on Roosevelt’s role also simplifies Miller’s narrative and allows him to digress at length about the Rough Rider’s well-known, lifelong obsession with the “strenuous life” and “muscular Christianity,” driven by his own personal demons and the fear, common within his social class in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, that America’s aristocracy was getting soft and could be displaced by cruder but fitter men. 

Football had been a bone of contention between TR and Eliot for a long time.  When Harvard (briefly) banned the game in 1885, TR called the University’s leaders “fools.”  He was just getting started.  As he became more prominent in American politics, he became a member of Harvard’s Board of Overseers, where his opinion mattered more.  Miller quotes at length (over 2 full pages) TR’s 1895 letter to Yale’s Walter Camp.  It is, Miller says accurately, “vintage Roosevelt,” full of “blunt talk and forceful opinion.”  It is also a document of TR’s time and place, full of concern that America was “tending…to produce in our leisure and sedentary classes a type of man not much above the Bengal baboo, and from this the athletic spirit has saved us.”  From its casual [and supposedly scientific] racism to its desire to find what William James called “the moral equivalent of war,” the letter captures TR’s characteristically assertive, moralistic confidence.  “I am utterly disgusted with the attitude of President Eliot and the Harvard faculty about foot ball,” he says.  Then, displaying his gyroscopic instinct for the middle of the road, he immediately adds, “though I must also say that I feel very strongly in favor of altering the rules, so far as practicable, to do away with needless roughness in playing, and, above all, in favor of severe umpiring, and the expulsion from the field of any player who is needlessly rough, even if he doesn’t come quite within the mark of any specific rule.  I do not know anything about umpiring foot ball games,” he adds (needlessly, but revealingly), “but I have a good deal of experience in umpiring polo games.  However, personally though I would like to see the rules change and to see the needless brutality abolished, I would a hundred fold rather keep the game as it is now, with the brutality, than give it up.”

TR got his way, of course.  And, as has been so often the case, he gets more credit here than he really deserves.  He was good at that.  The great Trust Buster didn’t really bust many trusts, despite his fulminations against “malefactors of great wealth.”  And the former polo umpire didn’t institute or push for the specific changes—such as legalizing the forward pass—that opened up the game and made it less brutal.  The changes didn’t come overnight—as Miller notes, a series of fatal incidents in 1909 revived calls for abolition—but, despite rearguard opposition from powerful figures such as Walter Camp, come they did.

College football’s survival was, if not inevitable, at least over-determined.  It fit perfectly into the Social Darwinian, hypercompetitive ethos of the Rooseveltian elite and made itself a spectator-pleasing, mass spectacle that appealed to audiences well beyond the campus.  Chicago’s William Rainey Harper, who hardly appears in Miller’s book, knew how important “branding” was for his new University and hired Amos Alonzo Stagg (also given only a cameo role), who innovated not only on the field but also in marketing the college football-watching experience, which soon included marching bands, organized cheering sections, and other features pointing directly to the Jumbotrons and luxury suites of today.  Newspapers added and expanded their sports sections, and football became by far the most important, public activity of the university.  (As the president of the University of Rhode Island remarked not long ago, “The Providence Journal doesn’t have a physics section.”)

So Miller’s vivid, quick-paced story isn’t the whole story.  (And one wonders what a writer for the National Review and the Wall Street Journal makes of the current president’s interest in reforming the Bowl Championship Series.)  But he spins his version of the tale well.  If it leaves the reader wanting to know more, so much the better.

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