Roosevelt May Have Threatened to Ban Football in 1905

While searching for the names of football players killed in 1905, I came across some news articles that brought to mind one of Ron Smith’s criticisms of the article in the January edition of The Football Historian which was mentioned in earlier blogs. Smith stated, “President Theodore Roosevelt never threatened to ban football.  In fact, T.R. chided Harvard president Charles W. Eliot (President from 1869-1909) for wanting to ban it. (The TR myth often mentioned by writers is simply not true)”

John Watterson, who Smith referenced as a source to back up his position, discusses Roosevelt’s intervention: “He started a campaign for reform in football….Unfortunately for the president, football did not lend itself to mediation as readily as diplomacy or politics.” Watterson mentions that some historians concluded that the survival of college football was not threatened by the protests against its violence. He then points out that, even if later historians didn’t take the threats seriously, those tasked with reforming the game did at the time. That Columbia and Union College had abolished the game demonstrated to them that it was possible.

In early December 1905, Dr. J. William White, professor of surgery at the University of Pennsylvania, in a statement authorized by the president, released Theodore Roosevelt’s five-point reform platform that the authorities of the leading colleges must accept as a “gentlemen’s agreement” to reform football. His initiatives probably weren’t controversial, however, what came later may have been. The last paragraph stated: “It would be a real misfortune to lose so manly and vigorous a game as football, and to avert such a possibility the college authorities in each college should see to it that the game in that college is clean.” If you or I said that, it would mean little, but when President Theodore Roosevelt says it, I take it as a thinly veiled threat.

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One Response to “Roosevelt May Have Threatened to Ban Football in 1905”

  1. Jeff Miller Says:

    It’s likely he was responding to calls for the game’s banishment, which was called for by some college officials. From what I have read, I have found no concrete evidence that would indicate that TR actually threatened to ban the game.

    But I’ll keep looking …

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