By Doug Abrams
By late 1905, college football was at a crossroads. In that season alone, eighteen players had been killed and scores more had been seriously injured during games. Americans cringed at news accounts of bloodshed on the field, and calls to abolish the sport as barbaric grew louder. Games and death did not seem to mix on college campuses.
Death in college football was serious business at the dawn of the 20th century. A national professional league was still a few years away, so the collegiate game was the highest and most publicized level of competitive football in America. Even one on-the-field death among several thousand college football players today would attract national attention; because far fewer students played college football in 1905, 18 deaths in a single season was an astounding percentage of all players. Because the rules permitted such mayhem as the Flying Wedge by players wearing flimsy protective equipment without helmets or face guards, the annual death toll showed no signs of abating.
President Theodore Roosevelt grew concerned that without rules changes to insure greater player safety, public revulsion would lead colleges to ban football altogether. Indeed, fear of death had already led some colleges to end their football programs.
Roosevelt had reasons to care. For one thing, he was a vigorous sportsman who had respected athletic competition all his life, indeed one of the most athletic Presidents we have ever had. For another, his Rough Riders who charged San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War only a few years earlier had included several former college football players who won his respect.
In October of 1905, the President summoned representatives from the “Big Three” — Harvard, Yale and Princeton — to convene at the White House and explore ways to maintain football’s distinctiveness as a collision sport, but also to stem the game’s largely unregulated brutality. By this time, TR had proved himself to be a skilled mediator. In 1902, he had ended a bitter national anthracite coal strike through negotiation at the White House, rejecting the approach of previous Presidents who broke strikes with federal troops. Just a month before the White House football summit, he had won the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating an end to the Russo-Japanese War, his latest successful effort to bring people together around the table.
With participants who were considerably less hostile to one another than labor, management and warring nations, the White House football summit led to several rules changes that continue today, including some that previewed further changes in later years. Without diminishing the game’s national popularity, these innovations made the mounting death toll a thing of the past. Players no longer die on the field today, yet football remains the nation’s most popular spectator sport each year in the annual Louis Harris poll. The highest award the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) can bestow on an individual is the Theodore Roosevelt Award, a perpetual honor to the man whose initiative saved the game from itself.
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Today the nation faces a crisis similar to the one that motivated President Roosevelt more than a century ago. Today’s crisis concerns concussions and traumatic brain injury in contact and collision sports, particularly football and hockey, but also in other sports including soccer, basketball and lacrosse. The crisis reaches the professional and amateur ranks alike.
Emerging medical research and a steady stream of news stories demonstrate that many professional football and hockey players face the prospect of disability and early death — not the immediate disability and death that stained college football in 1905, but lingering disability, dementia and eventual death from the cumulative effects of brain trauma. Professional players themselves have grown so concerned that several have donated their brains to medical research for examination and study after their death. A few players have committed suicide in apparent attempts to escape the ravages of mental decline.
By reviewing rules changes in the pursuit of greater player safety, professional leagues summon Americans to consider how much risk we are willing to tolerate for weekly public entertainment in collision and contact sports. As I wrote in last week’s column, however, parents and coaches need to settle on a much lower toleration level for concussions and traumatic brain injury in youth sports. When it comes to player safety, professional sports bears little resemblance to youth sports. Pros are multi-millionaire adult public entertainers who presumably can make their own risk-taking decisions; youth leaguers are children playing games as part of their upbringing.
After more than four decades as a youth hockey coach concerned about player safety, I draw two core propositions from the emerging medical consensus about the devastating harmful short-term and long-term effects of concussions and other brain trauma:
First, adults who conduct organized youth sports nationally and locally cannot remain satisfied with what passed for safety years ago. As I mentioned last week, many youth hockey safety rules and much protective equipment that appeared satisfactory in the 1960s would appear silly today for their inadequacy. We know more today about the debilitating effects of concussions and traumatic brain injury than we knew even ten years ago, and certainly much more than we knew in prior decades. The old ways are no longer acceptable.
Second, youth leagues protect children most effectively with proactive, rather than merely reactive, safety measures. About a dozen state legislatures have passed laws mandating precautions that must be taken before youth-leaguers may resume playing following a concussion. More state legislatures are considering such laws, and so is Congress. These enactments point in the right direction, but they are merely reactive because they confront concussions only after they have occurred. Effective safety regulation must also address proactive measures designed to prevent a significant percentage of concussions in the first place.
Because organized youth sports is much larger and more diverse than college football was in 1905, prevention does not depend on the President of the United States or any other single national political leader. Prevention depends largely on national youth sports governing bodies (USA Hockey, USA Football, and others), and on the state high school activities associations that oversee interscholastic sports. As protective equipment continues to improve, these groups must continue to weigh reasonable rule changes that maintain the essence of the particular sport, but also enhance safety for the children and adolescents who play. Last week, I wrote about prudent proposals to modify body checking rules in American and Canadian youth hockey.
In collision and contact sports, each youth sports governing body and high school activities association needs its own Theodore Roosevelt at the helm, someone willing to implement medical research and common sense in the best interests of the players. Someone who, like Roosevelt more than century ago, recognizes that contact and collision sports depend on a measure of controlled violence, but who also seeks consensus to enhance safety with prudent rule changes in what are, after all, kids’ games.