In its infancy in the late 19th century, the game of football was still a work in progress that only remotely resembled the sport millions follow today. There was no common agreement about many of the game’s basic rules, and it was incredibly violent and extremely dangerous. An Americanized version of rugby, this new game’s popularity grew even as the number of casualties rose. Numerous young men were badly injured, and dozens—the cream of the crop of America’s prep schools and colleges—died playing it in highly publicized incidents.
Objecting to the sport’s brutality, a movement of proto-Progressives, led by Harvard University president Charles W. Eliot and the editors of The Nation, tried to abolish it. President Roosevelt, a vocal advocate of “the strenuous life” and proponent of risk, acknowledged football’s dangers but admired it’s potential for building character. A longtime fan of the game who purposely recruited men with college-football experience for his Rough Riders, Roosevelt fought to preserve the game’s manly essence, even as he understood the need for reform.
In 1905, he summoned the coaches of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton to the White House and urged them to act. The result was the establishment of the NCAA, as well as a series of rule changes— including the advent of the forward pass—which ultimately saved football and transformed it into the quintessential American game. The Big Scrum reveals the fascinating details of this little-known story for the first time.