• Joe Pace

Favorite Non-Fiction Books, #96: The Big Scrum, How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football


Now do the Pro Bowl, Teddy.

I love history, and sports, and Teddy Roosevelt, so there's no universe in which I'd pass by a book covering all three, even one penned by right-wing National Review scribe John J. Miller. The book spends precious time covering the well-trodden ground of Roosevelt's early health troubles that led him to so fully embrace a sporting life, so familiar to TR-philes but perhaps necessary context for more casual readers or those coming from a more football-centric background. There's also a lot of predictable criticism of the academic leadership of the day, of people like Harvard President Charles Eliot, who was transforming the college into a world-class research institution and had little use for athletics (damn ivory tower pointy-headed coastal elites).


Where the book shines is in its treatment of the early days of the sport of football itself. A rough, violent, brutish game, like rugby without manners, football was leaving the bodies of young men in its wake throughout America, especially the prep schools and colleges of the northeast, where most people still lived in the 19th century. In 1905, the first year of TR's first elected term, 18 young men died on the gridiron. Enter Roosevelt, a Harvard alum with a passion for the game dating back to his freshman year in 1876. Roosevelt was a competitor, and adored strenuous striving in arenas of all kinds, but he was also an enlightened, compassionate creature with a strong affinity for fair play. He wanted to save football, to reform it, to make it safer, while preserving the qualities of the game that built character and sportsmanship. He found resistance among the leadership at his own Harvard, at Yale, and at Princeton, so he convened a summit that included them all and demanded solutions. The eventual results included an emphasis on the forward pass (then a gimmick), more referees on the field, more penalties for rough play, and even the founding of the then 62-member Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States in 1906. In 1910, it would change its name to the NCAA.


Roosevelt was a blowhard, a narcissist, a bully, utterly convinced of his own rectitude - imagine Donald Trump with brains, muscles, ability, personality, a loving family, education, experience, military service, a sense of justice, empathy for the less fortunate, class, true patriotism, charm, literacy, loyalty, and curiosity. He saw something that needed fixing, and he went after it the way he went after everything. And as in so many other cases, he pretty much got what he wanted. The game evolved and endured.


Football faces another crisis now, a hundred years later. Its inherent violence and potential physical cost is making it challenging for parents to want to see our children play the game we love. Football needs another reinvention if we're to save the lives of those who play it and preserve the positive growth it can instill. As for so many things, what we need is Teddy Roosevelt, but he's not coming through that door. I guess it's up to us.

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