Football: a deadly history

Over the two months that I have been reading old American newspapers, I noticed a trend in reports on football games: they were brutally violent. In 1913, I learned, 175 players were injured and fourteen  died.

Prominent in these articles were reports of football concussions. This is striking because concussions qualify as the single biggest concern the National Football League has today. The “concussion crisis” is usually framed as a modern issue, the ramifications for which we’re only learning about now. Yet back in 1913 there concussions were: dancing along the front pages. I decided to dig deeper into this issue that has been headline news for, in fact, over one hundred years.

An Idea Called Football

Humans have been playing ball games for thousands of years. In fact, when people in Mesoamerica decided to use a round object for entertainment, their activity was known simply as the ball game. These games were not peaceful affairs. In Mayan society, the losing team’s captain would be sacrificed to the gods, while the winners were celebrated even after death. Fortunately, violent though it may be, such practices are not in place in American football.

American football, though, arose in the eastern universities of Harvard, Yale, and Dartmouth. These early games were little more than an excuse to run and hit people. With large numbers of men participating in organized violence, there was an effort to ban these “games” at the universities. In 1855, football was done away with.

Game Abolished

From the Edgefield Advertiser, November 28, 1855
image source: Library of Congress

The Beginnings of a Modern Game

Though banished, Ivy League school students and faculty wanted to bring the game back. In 1873, a committee met in New York City, with representatives from Columbia, Yale, Princeton, and Rutgers. They established a set of rules to govern the game, though these rules resembled rugby more than what we know of football today. Harvard refused to be part of the meeting because their style of play was more comparable to soccer.

It soon became apparent that the new rules didn’t reduce violence in football. In 1877, a young man at Princeton, E. F. Crosby, nephew of the school’s chancellor, was knocked unconscious during a game between sophomores and freshmen. After he regained consciousness, he was taken home where a doctor treated him. In the newspaper article from The Sun, the treating doctor stated:

The young man has been delirious at intervals and is by no means out of danger. Such a concussion as that which he received may result in any one of several serious diseases, such as inflammation of the brain or brain fever.

In 1877, not only did doctors recognize the symptoms of a concussion, but knew that “several serious” brain diseases could be caused by such a hit to the head. However, this doctor went on the reassure people that, “there is no necessity for being alarmed about his recovery.” In his opinion, whatever brain trauma that had been sustained would go away within a few weeks. Concussions in the 1800s were well known to cause death if the blow were severe enough. However, only occasionally does one find reports detailing any long term effects of brain injury.

Though these reports were rare, it is clear that the medical profession knew concussions could effect the mental health of an individual years down the line. In 1886, H. H. Pearson Jr. was on trial for murder. His defense brought in Dr. W. R. Pike to testify for Pearson’s mental instability. Dr. Pike had worked as the medical superintendent at an insane asylum for nine years at this point and answered questions regarding the long term effects of concussions on the mental health of an individual. As reported in The Salt Lake Herald on Nov. 5, 1886:

image credit: Library of Congress

image credit: Library of Congress

In a murder case, a concussion sustained at the age of eleven was used to justify the actions of the defendant. Dr. Pike went on to explain that the brain, after sustaining such damage, would be more susceptible to alcohol and excitement, the combination of which resulted in the death of a man at the hands of Pearson. A concussion can change a “bright power” into a “morose and sullen one.”

In 2007, Ira Cassan, the chair of the NFL’s Mild Traumatic Brain Injury (MTBI) committee, gave an interview with HBO about the long term effects of head injuries.

Question: “Is there any evidence, as far as you’re concerned, that links multiple head injuries among pro football players with depression.”

Cassan: “No.”

More than one hundred years prior to this interview, Dr. W. R. Pike would have answered that same question with an emphatic “yes.”

A Need For Change

Even after the meeting to adopt uniform rules, injuries piled up at the Ivy League schools. The need for increased safety resulted in new rules.

Walter Camp was a New Haven clock maker who also was involved with the Yale football team. After years of watching the sport and the violence it caused, Camp proposed a number of changes to the game. Adjustments included a line of scrimmage, a system of downs, the points system, and limit of 11 players (down from 15) on the field for each team. These rules were adopted in 1880, resulting in a game that was faster and less dependent on brute strength.

However, with so many quickly moving players, collisions were sometimes even more jarring than before. Deaths in football began to rise, especially among players outside of collegiate games. Below are newspaper reports from 1904 and 1905, respectively.

image credit: Library of Congress

image credit: Library of Congress

1905 Deaths

image credit: Library of Congress

The second story, from 1905, was a headline in The Minneapolis Journal. Concussions were the main culprit for deaths and serious injuries suffered in football. In response to these reports of mounting death tolls on the fields, schools moved to ban the sport again, and in some cases, foretell the death of the game itself.  The death of a high school player in 1905 prompted this headline to be published in The Evening Statesman in 1905:


A war had begun on football and without a big change, the sport would be finished.

The Helmet Arrives

Leather helmets were first used while playing football in the late 1800s, but didn’t catch on quickly. However, during World War I, American pilots began to wear football helmets to protect themselves in the case of a crash. Testing began prior to the war to develop different types of head protection, including by English inventor W.T. Warren, who was known to jump into walls to test his designs.

W T Warren Testing Safety Helmet, 06/04/12

image credit: Flight Global

Troy Polamalu

In 1913, a newspaper report lamented the loss of a “long haired fraternity” of football players and attributed the decline of flowing locks to the use of helmets. According to the article in the Chicago Eagle, helmets were “almost universally worn by college and high school footballists.” Troy Polamalu smirks.

All the same, hairless or otherwise, the sport widely embraced the advent of safety measures that figured to keep it alive.

Football Pads

Advertisement for football equipment from the Seattle Star on October 1, 1915
image credit: Library of Congress

And Now?

But helmets have been part of the game for more than 100 years. And with concussions near the forefront of any discussion about the game today, the headlines proclaiming football doomed persistquite literally. There are two possible takeaways, and neither sounds all that great for football fans.

The first: Football is an inherently violent game, and we must accept this. With or without helmets, with or without kickoff returns, it is a game that features wildly athletic men running into each other at full speed, and such a game will cause head injuries. It was true in 1905, and it’s true today. The upside of this takeaway is that, though it may incite guilt, we can accept it to be true, hope players and parents are made as aware of this as possible before choosing to play the game, and we’ll still turn on the TV at 1 p.m. eastern on Sundays in the fall.

If we don’t want to accept this as an inevitability, as a fact, then there’s this: The game is doomed, indeed. To avoid this, it remains incumbent on the NFL and football organizations nationwide to continue to find ways to address head injuries, which have in truth been a threat — and a public one — to the game and its players since its earliest days.

Repost from 2015.