President Hoover and Football

by Matthew Schaefer

Stanford Football team, 1894, Herbert Hoover is in the coat and tie in the back row. He was the manager.
Stanford Football team, 1894, Herbert Hoover is in the coat and tie in the back row. He was the manager.

Somehow, I’ve written more than once about Herbert Hoover and football without consulting the two folders on ‘Football, 1929-1932’ in Hoover’s Presidential Subject Files.   This is written in order to rectify that oversight.  These files contain a letter dated December 5, 1931 from Mrs. Helen MacLean to President Hoover.  Mrs. MacLean explained in this lengthy letter that, as the mother of two boys intent on playing football, she felt compelled to write.  She beseeches Hoover: ‘Will you do what you can to bring the game to a sane and safer level?  For it seems to me that football has become more of a war than a game.’

MacLean invoked the actions of President Theodore Roosevelt, who found it necessary to intervene in 1905 to reduce the violence of football in order to forestall dangerous injuries and death.  MacLean credited Roosevelt’s efforts for making football temporarily safer, ‘but the evils abolished at that time have returned since, it seems, cruel in a more scientific and diabolical form.’  She closed: ‘Do not wait for a letter from another mother whose son has been sacrificed on the altar of this so-called sport.’

To add weight to her argument, Mrs. MacLean enclosed an editorial ‘Stop These Football Tragedies’ from the December 4, 1931 Brooklyn Daily Eagle.  Looking at a collegiate football season marred by scores of serious injuries and a handful of deaths, the editorial called for rules modifications to make the game safer once again.  The author pointed to improved equipment, specifically harder helmets and shoulder pads, combined with the increased speed of the game as leading to calamitous injuries.  To further drive this point home, the editorial was illustrated by a political cartoon titled ‘All-Time All-American’ showing Death looming over a football field.

One of Hoover’s secretaries quickly replied to Helen MacLean: ‘Your letter has been received.  I shall bring it to the attention of the President.’  The letter did not appear to alter Hoover’s thinking on football.  Among the later correspondence in the folder are complimentary tickets offered to Hoover by Dartmouth College for games in the 1932 football season.  This included late October matchups against Ivy League powerhouses Harvard and Yale.  Hoover did not attend these games.  He was otherwise engaged with Presidential duties and his campaign.

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