Football is, and always has been, one of the most violent sports in the United States. That’s not a hot take. The players know this. The fans know this. People who do not care about football at all know this. Even 100 years ago, newspaper readers knew this.
Now here’s a take: 1919 marks the beginning of the end of violence in football. This is the year football will see the “elimination of brutality.” I have a word for you, dear author and legendary coach A.A. Stagg: nah.
‘Elimination’ is an incredibly definitive term for a sport that was born out of violence. In the 2015 Radiolab episode, American Football, the show investigates how football was invented as a reaction to post-war anxiety that men were losing their masculinity and needed an arena to re-establish this essential part of themselves. And we all know there’s nothing more masculine than violence!
The idea that football can save masculinity is alive and well 100 years later. In 2015, University of Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh said,
“I love football. Love it. Love it. I think it’s the last bastion of hope for toughness in America in men, in males.” I can almost see him jumping up and down on Oprah’s couch while saying that.
Here’s another take that has legs over the years: it’s the players’ fault that they’re getting killed/concussed/injured. The writer of this article points to the “bad training” and “lack of knowledge” of the deceased players. Today it’s more like ‘you guys know what you’re getting yourselves into, and therefore deserve what you get.’
Chuck Klosterman, in a 2014 New York Times article titled Is It Wrong to Watch Football? discusses the ethical convolution for players when their agency may actually be an illusion. It’s a great piece, you should read it.
Back to the historic article, considering how few people must have been playing football in 1919 compared to 2019 where millions of young people are on the field, nine deaths seems like a lot, especially when you list the ways in which these men died, most of whom are teenagers and early 20-somethings: broken back, concussion, spinal injury, skull fracture, broken neck, internal injury, and apoplexy (cerebral hemorrage). It’s just brutal.
And yet the football apologists of 1919 argue that it’s getting less brutal. Just think of “a dozen years ago,” followers of the game point out, when there was more smashing, vicious tactics, low hurdling, and as the Radiolab episode describes, eye gouging, kicking, and piles of men. They do have a point though, for about a dozen years before, in 1905, 16 players died on the field.
The article writer quotes A. A. Stagg a few times as someone who has seen a lot of football and generally has his finger on the pulse of the game, and since I’d never heard of him, I did some research.
Amos Alonzo Stagg played college football for the best squad at the time, Yale University. After graduation he became the head football coach at the University of Chicago from 1892 to 1932 where he led the team to years of dominance. He went on to coach Pacific from 1932 to 1946. He was an influential innovator of the sport, introducing the tackling dummy, the huddle, the reverse, the man in motion plays, the lateral pass, uniform numbers, and awarding varsity letters. Dude was a football lifer and Hall of Famer. He was, however, wrong about fatalities in football being eliminated.
100 years ago today, a legendary football coach predicted the end of violence in the sport, pointing to the fact that only nine teenagers and twenty-somethings died brutal deaths on the field that year.