“One of the things I wish we could learn from you is how to make the game of football a rather less homicidal sport. I do not wish to speak as a mere sentimentalist, but I do not think that killing should be a normal accompaniment of the game, and while we develop our football from Rugby, I wish we could go back and undevelop it, and get it nearer your game.”
Theodore Roosevelt, speaking at The Cambridge Union, Cambridge, England. May 26th, 1910.
As the world watches the big game today, we remember one of TR’s more quotable quotes about the game of football. After his presidency was over, TR was invited to speak in Cambridge in front of The Cambridge Union, where he delivered his thoughts on American football and its relationship to English rugby.
Football was still in it’s infancy during TR’s administration, and looked quite different than the modern game we see today. It was also remarkably brutal by our standards. According to The Washington Post, 18 people died playing football in 1905 alone, and at least 45 people died between 1900 and 1905. In response, TR helped to organize a committee meant to reform the game. A year later, that committee implemented a number of changes, including the forward pass and the introduction of a new position on the field: the “receiver.”
It’s important to note that TR said (again and again) that he did not want to see football abolished. He was a fan. You’ll note a hint of that in the original quote: TR’s comment about avoiding “sentimentality” reflects his belief in football as a manly, and thus truly American, endeavor. Probably influenced by an injury suffered by his own son, TR simply wanted to see the sport implement reforms to ensure greater safety. That project continues today.
-- Paul J. Zwirecki, Ph.D., TR Site Director of Administration & Special Projects
More from TR on football:
“What I have to say with reference to all sports refers especially to football. The brutality must be done away with and the danger minimized. If necessary the college faculties must take a hand, and those of the different colleges must co-operate. The rules for football ought probably to be altered so as to do away with the present mass play, and, I think, also the present system of interference, while the umpires must be made to prevent slugging or any kind of foul play by the severest penalties. Moreover, professionalism must be stopped outright. It should be distinctly understood among the academies and colleges that no team will have anything to do with another upon which professionals are employed.”
Harper's Weekly, December 23, 1893, p, 1236.
“There is little point in the mere development of strength. The point lies in developing a man who can do something with his strength; who not only has the skill to turn his muscles to advantage, but the heart and the head to direct that skill, and to direct it well and fearlessly. Gymnastics and calisthenics are very well in their way as substitutes when nothing better can be obtained, but the true sports for a manly race are sports like running, rowing, playing football and baseball, boxing and wrestling, shooting, riding, and mountain-climbing.”
Harper's Weekly, December 23, 1893, p. 1236.
“I always believe in going hard at everything, whether it is Latin or mathematics, boxing or football, but at the same time I want to keep the sense of proportion. It is never worth while to absolutely exhaust one's self or to take big chances unless for an adequate object.”
(To Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., May 7, 1901.)
“I believe in athletics; but I believe in them chiefly because of the moral qualities that they display. I am glad to see the boy able to keep his nerve in a close baseball game, able to keep his courage under the punishment of a football game or in a four-mile boat race; because if the boy really amounts to anything and has got the right stuff in him, this means that he is going to keep his nerve and courage in more important things in after life. If your prowess is due simply to the possession of big muscles, it does not amount to much. What counts is the ability to back up the muscles with the right spirit. If you have the pluck, the grit, in you to count in sports, just as if you have the pluck and grit in you to count in your studies, so in both cases it will help you to count in after life.
(At Georgetown College, Washington, D. C., June 14, 1906.)
“I am delighted to have you play football. I believe in rough, manly sports. But I do not believe in them if they degenerate into the sole end of any one’s existence. I don’t want you to sacrifice standing well in your studies to any over-athleticism; and I need not tell you that character counts for a great deal more than either intellect or body in winning success in life. Athletic proficiency is a mighty good servant; and like so many other good servants, a mighty bad master.
(To Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., October 4, 1903.)
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