Seasons Change, but Football Remains

1940 official rule book – American Football for Boys A Safe Game. Official Rules

If it is autumn, Americans’ attention turn to football.  The cool crisp autumnal air is the perfect vector to carry the satisfying sound of leather meeting leather on the gridiron.  The satisfaction of a well-executed tackle was held just as dear in Herbert Hoover’s time.

Today there is much attention given to the physical risks associated with football.   The game, once described as a contact sport has evolved into a collision sport as behemoths moving ever faster on the fixed acreage of the field collide with bone-jarring frequency.  Some are raising a cry to reduce the danger inherent in the game, but are vexed by how best to do so.  A decade ago, most Americans could not spell CTE, now we not only know what it means, we know that it has been diagnosed [post mortem] in 99% of the former players tested.

The haze of an idealized past leaves us longing for those days when football was not so violent. In reviewing the historical record, this idyllic past loses luster.  Hoover’s Post-Presidential Subject Files contain a folder titled ‘Football, 1933-1961.’  This folder contains a March 18, 1940 letter asking Hoover to endorse the enclosed rule book, ‘American Football for Boys: A Safe Game.’  The authors point out that youth football results in nearly 100,000 injuries per year, leading to millions of dollars of medical costs and nearly a million days of school missed.  The proposed solution was contained in the brief rule book.

The rule book was created by Jack Spaulding, an apt name for any man devising rules for a game involving balls.  He proposed ‘a safe game for all classes of boys to play because there was no blocking, no tackling, or any other feature that may prove injurious.’  Youths under the age of sixteen should play a version of football that amounted to one-hand touch.  Once a ball-carrier was touched by a defender, the play was dead and the teams would line up from scrimmage.  The players on the nine-man teams would wear no helmets or pads; the field was to be eighty yards long and forty yards wide; there would be no kick-offs and no punt returns.  Any deliberate, hard bodily contact would result in a twenty-five yard penalty and the ejection of the player from the game.  Spaulding’s goal was for the players to develop game skills and understanding of fundamentals without risk of injury.  While noble in purpose, this idea did not catch on.

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