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Volume 14, Issue 6: Historia

American Football

Chris Schlect

One reason why American football developed as it did is because it's not English rugby. Our collegians in the nineteenth century wanted to lose Old World ways, so they made radical changes to a sport that became less and less like the English rugby it came from. Americans wanted a college game that was just like the western hemisphere they sought: theirs, and nobody else's—and especially no European's. The story of American football is a telling snapshot of America, and Yale's Walter Camp deserves to be ranked among our founding fathers.

It was Camp who represented Yale in 1880 at the Intercollegiate Football Association. He convinced the other schools to ditch rugby's free-for-all way of starting play—the scrum—by having the teams take turns with the ball from scrimmage. Princeton took advantage of the new rule the following year. Because a tie would enable them to retain their championship trophy for another year, in the Thanksgiving game against Yale they held the ball for the entire first half without attempting to advance it up field. Clever, yes, but clearly out of keeping with the spirit of the game. In American Football, Camp himself comments on this event in his description of the evolution of football rules. "…A menace which threatened American football far more seriously [was] the `block game.' This method of play, which consisted in a succession of `downs' without advance and without allowing the opponents any chance of securing possession of the ball, proved a means by which a weak team could avoid defeat. The whole object of the match was thus frustrated, the game resulting in no score."1
Princeton's tactic "frustrated" the "whole object of the match," so in 1882 Camp suggested they limit the number of "downs" in order to counteract such abuses. So in three downs a team had to advance five yards or backwards ten. (Tracking the yardage required lines on the field at five-yard intervals. One news reporter criticized the lined field, calling it a "gridiron." The tag stuck.) After the creation of scrimmage in 1880 and of downs in 1882, there was no going back to rugby.
Football's evolution displays the American way of fighting sin. We combat sin with rules. Camp lauded fair play, good sportsmanship, and honor on the playing field.2 But when he faced real-life problems, he fought back with law.
Football became notoriously violent. In 1882 Princeton developed its "V" formation that Harvard transformed into its dreaded "flying wedge" a decade later: several offensive players started running from behind scrimmage, and by the time they reached scrimmage, they were at a dead sprint. The ensuing collisions caused injuries and deaths. One team even sewed suitcase handles on their trousers; a man grabs the handle sewed to the teammate running ahead of him, while another grabs his handle from behind, and so a line of blockers forms, steamrolling the defense as the ball carrier follows. Everyone knew that injury-inducing collisions and handle-bearing trousers were inconsistent with the game's ideals. But there was no written rule against it; who could complain? This is the American way. Rather than confronting offenses as being truly ugly, Camp proposed more rules. In 1894 his committee forbade offensive motion and required seven men on offense to line up at scrimmage.
But "mass momentum play" continued. In plays from scrimmage, the offense pushed and pulled the ball carrier forward, and defenders hurled their bodies at the mob to stop him. Elbows and fists flew, heads butted, blood flowed and bones cracked. The forward pass was legalized in 1912 as a last-ditch effort to stop the brutality. Camp reasoned that eligible receivers downfield drew attention away from the ball carrier and limited the fist-throwing mobs around him.
It was also Walter Camp who outlawed "unsportsmanlike conduct" in 1903, after Carlisle players appliquéd padded footballs to their jerseys in order to confuse opponents as to the identity of the ball carrier. This was the same Carlisle whose kickoff receiver slipped the ball under a teammate's jersey, and the latter ran for a touchdown undetected.3 Clearly, the Carlisle team was interested more in gaining advantage than in following the understood principles of the game.
The dawn of American football is a story of antinomian libertines versus legalistic Pharisees. Libertine players sought an imbalance in the playing field either by exploiting loopholes in the rules or by violating them outright. Against the libertines, Camp and his pharisaical standard-bearers preserved ideals through legislation. The rules multiplied. Written rules were the obsession of both sides: libertines could defend their actions on the grounds that there was no rule against what they did, and Pharisees answered with more rules to close loopholes. The result was a rule book that by 1912 had grown into an unwieldy Talmud of sixty-five pages.4 Progressive and fundamentalist politics followed the same ugly tendencies. Their program for virtue was to pass laws—laws against alcoholic beverages, child labor, monopolies, divorce, truancy, illiteracy, jay-walking, pollution. We Americans see rules as our savior.

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