Sports History Files: The original sins of college football

The violence, crippling injuries, academic short cuts and other dysfunctional components of the present-day world of college football are hardly new.

Nor do they date back only a half-century or so, when the NCAA finally modernized in the early 1950s, cracked down on rule-breakers and reigned in athletic departments that wanted to cut their own television and business deals.

That’s partly because the problems referred to by reformers, academics, media types and others these days — usually with little to no effect — have been with college football from its origins.

the opening kickoffSports historians have been writing about these matters over the years — notably Ronald Smith and Michael Oriard. But with college football’s primacy on the rise again — the new SEC Network, a new playoff format, among other lucrative changes — a journalist employed by one of the major players in the college athletics industry has taken a fresh, unflinching look at the game as it has always been contested.

Big Ten Network host Dave Revsine’s “The Opening Kickoff: The Tumultous Birth of a Football Nation,” has received plenty of well-deserved attention for making it very clear that the nefarious activity we fret about today has never been separated from the compelling entertainment product first popularized more than a century ago.

Revsine, whose book examines college football between 1890 and 1915, writes in his introduction:

“What if I told you the current problems in college football might actually be viewed as an improvement — that, in some regards, the college game was once far worse than it is today?”

His first chapter, excerpted here in Sports Illustrated, details the 1893 Thanksgiving Day game between Princeton and Yale in New York City that contained all the elements familiar to today’s fans: Excessive media hype, a full-house crowd of more than 50,000 at Manhattan Field (on the site of the future Polo Grounds) and heavy wagering.

Only four years later, the death of Von Albade Gammon, a 17-year-old University of Georgia football player injured in a game against Virginia, prompted calls that football be banned (GQ excerpt here).

These cries would continue into the new century, from within the academy as well as the media responsible for so much of the hype. Notably, Oriard contended the newspapers were lashing out to boost circulation more than reflect concern over player safety.

But in 1905, after 18 players died from on-the-field injuries, President Theodore Roosevelt finally called college football leaders to the White House. Rules changes, such as the forward pass, were enacted, though player deaths continued. The organization that eventually was created out of this movement was the National Collegiate Athletic Assocation.

Revsine, a former ESPN host and son of a late Northwestern University professor, also weaves into his narrative the story of Pat O’Dea, an Australian who played for Wisconsin in the late 1890s. He was one of the sport’s first big-time stars, boasting supreme kicking skills in an age when brute force dominated.

And as Hiawatha Bray noted in a review in The Boston Globe, Johnny Manziel had nothing on O’Dea when it came to off-the-field notoriety, especially with the ladies.

David Jones of The Patriot-News has more on how Revsine came to write, and research, the book; Revsine sat down with John Feinstein and Bill Littlefield for radio interviews that are worth the listen.

On his own network, Revsine also was the host of a panel discussion about the problems of college football, seen through the historical lens he has provided, and including Ronald Smith as a guest. And here’s Revsine in a Q and A with Big Ten Network colleague Tom Dienhart earlier this week:

“That is what I worry about the most with the game, the injuries and concussions. It’s an area where we certainly could learn (from the past). Part of what they did was they changed the rules dramatically. People say you can’t change the rules, the game is good as it is; you change the fundamental nature of the game (if you change the rules). And that’s exactly what they did then. They changed the fundamental nature of the game. You know what? Some would argue they got a better game out of it. I do think that’s an area we can learn from history.”

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