Popular Science Monthly/Volume 45/October 1894/The Football Situation

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1224877Popular Science Monthly Volume 45 October 1894 — The Football Situation1894Eugene Lamb Richards




OCTOBER, 1894.




I WRITE not as an expert, but rather as an intelligent sympathizer. I have been for twenty-five years an instructor in Yale College, and believe thoroughly in its traditions of work and scholarship. From my youth up having been fond of athletic exercises, and as a student always ready to participate in them, I can write of them understandingly. I have known personally all the captains of the Yale football teams for the past twelve years, most of them intimately. With one exception they have all been my pupils. One of them was a member of my own family. Having exceptional knowledge of the subject, which the possession of these opportunities grants to but few men, I deem it a duty to put in permanent form the results of my observations. I have already done this with reference to the subject of athletics in general.[1] In this article I wish to confine my attention to the game of football.

I hope to prove that with all its faults it is one of the best forms of athletic sport which can be invented; that by no other game or exercise practiced by young men are the players themselves so much benefited as by football; that the colleges ought to be as much interested in keeping it up as are the most enthusiastic football players themselves; that the public, who have boys to educate, ought to acquaint themselves with the subject. Watching the games when possible, they ought not to allow themselves to be beguiled into condemnation of the sport by sensational writers, who inveigh against it either because they know nothing of it, or because they have determined to know nothing of it, since it does not square with their "historic and traditional idea" of things suitable to a college. Lastly, I wish to suggest lines along which measures for the improvement of the game should be taken, and also to advocate some measures for the better supervision of the sport.

It will surprise many good people, who have been accustomed to hear such an epithet as "brutal" applied to the game of football, that I should claim for it as the first point of superiority over other college athletic sports that it is eminently an intellectual game. A game of football between contestants evenly matched in other respects is won by the superior mental work of the winning team as embodied in the generalship of the captain and the thoughtful work of his men. The game is not simply a struggle for mastery of one body of strong men over another, but it is a contest for supremacy, in which supremacy is gained not by physical strength alone, but by this strength rightly directed by mind.

In the first place, the rules of the game must be observed by every player. He must conform his play to them. He must have them thoroughly in mind, in order to know what he can do, as well as to avoid what he is not permitted to do. These rules are very numerous—more numerous, I believe, than the rules of any other college sport, and cover a wider sphere of action. The interpretation and application of them in every moment of play call for no ordinary quickness of mind in a successful player.

Though each man has a special line of play belonging to his position on a team, yet his play is so related to the plays of the rest of the team that he can not act without regard to the other players. It is eminently a game of combinations. Individual play is important, but team play is more important. The signals of the captain must be heeded by all the players, even if they seem to be given for only two or three men. Through weeks of preparation these signals have to be studied, to be memorized, to be practiced as thoroughly and faithfully by the men as the laws of any science by successful scholars.

The only other college game which is to be compared with it in respect of team play is the game of baseball. Yet in this game the players have fixed positions. Though the men in these positions play in combination with each other, they are remote from one another, and do not at any time join together to make a particular play effective, as the players of a football team move to a common goal. Though team play is important, it is not as important as in football, while individual play, as, for instance, that of pitcher or catcher, is more important. In rowing, the work. though requiring skill and severe training, is largely mechanical. In track athletics the individual is everything.

That the game has had attractions for intellectual men in the past is shown by the fact that the average scholarship of men on the football teams has of late years been higher than that of men in the other athletic organizations. In the years 1879 to 1888 the average standing of men not on athletic organizations was on a scale of 4, 2·69; for members of the university boat crew the average was 2·52; for members of the baseball nine it was 2·41; for members of the football team it was 2·68. Track athletics were not in existence as an organization through the whole decade, but for the few years when there was a university team the average was 2·66. In the previous decade, 1869 to 1878, it is only fair to add that the average of the football men was slightly below that of the other athletes, it being 2·51 to their 2·56. I can only account for the fact of the rise of the average in the second decade by the change in the numbers of the team from twenty to eleven—a change giving opportunity for more skill, thus rendering the play more attractive to men of mind. Notwithstanding the present style of mass play, which puts a premium on physical strength and weight, it was a surprise to me to find that the average scholarship of the sixteen men from the academic department, including players and substitutes, was higher than the average of any class which ever graduated. I can not believe, however, that the high scholarship of football players will always prevail, unless the style of the game be changed to one which admits of more open play.[2]

Another advantage of the game is that the practice of it engages a large number of players. A regular team has two more men than the baseball nine, and three more than the crew of eight men. The substitutes, having a systematic training, are more numerous than the substitutes for either baseball or for the crew. Track athletics only can be compared with it in the numbers brought into it. For a short period of the year this latter sport may exercise more men, but taking into consideration the various class teams of football, and especially the team of the freshmen class with substitutes, it is doubtful if even the numbers of those engaging in track athletics exceed the numbers engaging in football.

Of the benefits accruing to the players the physical benefits are the least noteworthy. Yet the play brings into activity almost every muscle of the body. The legs, the arms, and the trunk are all used. No part of the muscular system is developed abnormally. In addition to the opportunity for this uniform development must be mentioned the care bestowed upon the players in the way of attention to injuries received. Not only is the best surgeon employed, but the best professional trainers and rubbers wait on the men to second the efforts of the doctor. To this continual watching of the men on the university teams is due not a little of the comparative immunity from serious injuries received of late years, notwithstanding the rough play in the field.

Another advantage to the players is derived from the great attention given to the diet, not only of the players of the regular team, but of any man who works faithfully as a substitute, or shows any promise of "making the team" at any time in a present or future season. Forty men are at times at the university training table, a number greatly in excess of those at the table of any other organization. The freshman team, too, with their substitutes, have their training table and their attendant coachers, rubbers, and trainers.

But great as are the benefits of the sport to the players in mind and body, they are not to be compared with its moral effects. If there is one virtue most to be desired in a manly character—without which, indeed, it ceases to be manly—that virtue is courage. And of the college sports there is not one which cultivates this manly virtue more than football. Neither is the courage required entirely physical. Indeed, the best players feel and see the danger which they brave. Conscious of injuries received, they often continue to face plays which may exaggerate their pains.

Then the need of self-control in the midst of strong excitement is another valuable lesson learned. Self-denial is taught in the voluntary abnegation of the delights of college, in the forsaking of indulgence in the luxuries of life. To training in courage endurance, and self-control must be added the valuable lesson of obedience to authority. The discipline in this respect is as strict as the strictest military discipline. Men are required to obey captain and coach and to obey silently. This unquestioning, instant submission to word of command is not the least of the excellent lessons of a football season. It shows its effects in the whole college life and college world.

Strange as it may seem, a good claim can be made of a necessary connection between good character and good football in its best development. In everything requiring the best results the best success depends upon the best men. As there is no other college sport which so brings out the best virtues in a man, so there is no other college sport which is so dependent for its success upon good all-round men. Though this statement is measurably true for all amateur sports, it is emphatically true of football. It has been borne out by facts. The best teams in Yale have had not only the best players, but the most successful teams have contained the most moral and religious men. In a class prayer-meeting I once heard a man, who was for two years a most valuable player (a captain one of those years), declare that the great success of the team the previous season was, in his opinion, due to the fact that "among the team and substitutes there were so many praying men." As it was with this man, so it has ever been with the successful captains as well as the successful coachers at Yale. They have been God-fearing men, upright in action and clean in speech.

With reference to the colleges, the good effects of the game of football which they produce in common with the other sports need only a passing mention. Among these may be instanced the esprit de corps to which they give rise, the healthy excitements necessary to young men which they furnish—excitements which, for many, replace and moderate, if they do not entirely drive out, the old excitements of gambling and drinking, gate-stealing, contests between town and gown, formerly so prevalent and so difficult to deal with on the part of the college authorities. But in addition to these and other benefits to the college world, football with its contests and training comes at a time of the year when it does the most good not only in the directions mentioned, but in two other ways. Boys who are just entering college and, who are for the first time in their careers freed from the restraints of school or home, it introduces to a new discipline, a discipline of their fellows, and to new ideals, which, if not the highest, are at least respectable and worthy of imitation. It brings many of them in contact with the best men in college, and saves not a few of them from wasting their idle hours in foolish and hurtful dissipation. Again, it absorbs the attention of all the college to such a degree as to divert the minds of many of those upper classmen who formerly thought they had a mission to perform in acquainting the new men with the submission required of them in their college home. The discipline of the sport coming at the time it does has almost entirely done away with that occupation. The freshmen have learned their lesson in a better way, under better instructors. The discipline of football has almost banished the discipline of hazing, or left it tame and without excuse for its existence.

To the public the sport is most valuable, especially for those who have boys to educate. The game has spread from the colleges to the schools. The discipline of play has helped the discipline of the study room. Indeed, it has supplemented it with a new education. It has furnished stronger bodies with better brains. It has given an antidote to excessive culture, which often enfeebles the body while it refines the mind. It has given to the city youths a sport more fascinating with all its dangers and severe restraints than the temptations of city life. What this boon means in its effects upon the coming generations the coming time will show. It certainly is bringing forward a more virile race even in the cities. And the cities in the past have been the first points of decadence of a decaying civilization. As the census reports show, the population is flocking more and more to the cities, so that the growth of athletics began at a time when it was most needed. What President Eliot, in his late report, says of the effect of athletic sports at Harvard, applies with equal truth and force to athletics in all educational institutions—universities as well as schools—"namely, that there has been a decided improvement in the average health and strength of Harvard students during the past twenty-five years. The gain is visible in all sorts of students, among those who devote themselves to study as well as among those who give much time to sports." It was in the colleges that this increased attention to physical exercise was begun, and begun by the students themselves. The system extended to the schools. It has been the parent of most of the athletic clubs now in existence. It furnishes a healthy stimulus and recreation to thousands of young men who but for it would be wasting their strength in much more brutal and brutalizing excitements. It is not too much to say that it is the salvation of our youth. And just as the scholarship of our universities stimulates the intellectual life of these schools, so the athletic contests of the universities keep alive among the schoolboys a healthy admiration for a manly physique. This effect of the college sports has not been sufficiently noticed. It is worth all it costs. It could never have existed if it had not been for the publicity given to the college contests, and to football contests in particular. It has given order to play and introduced obedience to authority and the love of courage into every school in the land. It is not entirely because Yale and Harvard play football or baseball, row and train, that their students show a "decided improvement in their average health during the past twenty-five years," but also because their example has been followed by the schools, and consequently better developed young men are sent from the schools to the universities. The improvement is not confined to college students. It is noticeable in the young men of the whole land. It has produced another effect. The young women of the country have been induced to emulate the physical development of their brothers. They have not played all their rough games, it is true; still, it is undeniable that the greater attention to the physique of women is in some degree an effect of the visible good results of the better development of the men. And all the aids of physical development, such as gymnasiums. athletic fields, and better playgrounds, have arisen to help on this good work.

As to the disadvantages of football, the sport is like everything else: it is subject to evils. The question is not whether there are evils attending the game, but whether the evils overbalance the good. I admit the evils, but I maintain that the evils have been exaggerated, and that they are not yet great enough to call for the abolition of the game.

Evil No. 1: Excessive time devoted to practice. This charge only applies to the last few weeks of preparation. The first weeks, two hours and a half for most of the players would be the maximum time. For the half-backs three hours would suffice for their maximum time. Part of this time, too, is consumed in going to and from the field or practice ground. Some of the players, more systematic than their fellows, do not consume even so much time. But in the last few weeks, varying in numbers according to the judgment of the captain and coaches of the year, more time is used, amounting, under the most exacting captain, to as many as five hours and a half a day for five weeks. I may add, however, that this exacting captain overdid the business, tired out his team, and suffered the humiliation of a defeat. The most successful captain whom I have known saved the time of his men all through the season, seldom giving them more than two hours' practice, and devoting only one week to hard practice. Five hours a day is too much time for a student to devote to any sport. So much time devoted to practice is not necessary for success. On the contrary, it interferes with success, so that this evil is bound to work its own cure. But, even granted that five and a half hours per day for five weeks were given to football practice, it does not follow that those are taken from study, or that, if the game of football were driven out of college, all the players would betake themselves to books. Some of them would give part of their time to study, but poor scholars of the team would still continue to be poor students. Indeed, it is my belief that they would be poorer scholars than before. When they are on the team the very necessity to economize their time compels these men to regular hours of work. When they cease to play football they waste their time. It has always been the result of my observation that though the good scholars of the team do better work in the winter and spring terms, the poor scholars at that time usually fall off in scholarship. But if football is a cause of poor scholarship, why is it that the cause is not uniform in its effects? If it were uniform in its effects all the players would be poor students. Yet the highest honor men are often members of teams. But it may be said that the introduction of football into college has affected the scholarship of the college in general unfavorably, even if it has not so affected the scholarship of the players themselves. But the facts are against this theory. I took the trouble to go through the scholarship record of two decades—1869 to 1888—decades which witnessed the great development of athletics. For the first decade the average was 2·67 on a scale of 4; for the second decade it was 2·69. In the various sports the average scholarship of the football men was the only one which rose in the second decade higher than in the first, passing from 2·51 to 2·68.

Evil No. 2: Extravagance in expenditure of money earned. Charges of this kind have been made quite recklessly, not only against football but against athletics generally. Knowing that the football teams have earned a great deal of money and not knowing exactly how it is spent, enemies of the game have apparently assumed that it must have been spent extravagantly. None of this money goes to members of the team. It is all paid into the treasury of the Financial Union. The treasurer is a graduate. He pays out money according to the orders of the president of the Y. U. F. B. C, or of the manager of the team. The only persons, then, who could possibly be liable to the charges of wastefulness or extravagance are these three persons. The treasurer can be thrown out of consideration. He is simply an agent, and the writer can testify to the fact that the treasurer exercises a restraining influence. Moreover, as the Financial Union holds and disburses, through this treasurer, the moneys of the other athletic organizations, all the officers of that union (who are also officers of those athletic organizations) exercise a mutual oversight and watchfulness toward one another. This influence is felt for good by the two officers of the university football club as well as by all the others.

Undoubtedly every year much more money is spent than is necessary. Undoubtedly, also, much more money has been spent on football in the last few years than was spent in the first years of the existence of the game, and a judicious economy might have saved a good deal of this money. But it must be remembered that the age is extravagant; that more money is wasted in dress, in furniture, in all the vain show of living than was spent thirty years ago. It must also be borne in mind that in the infancy of the game only the fifteen or eleven members of the team were expected to have their unusual expenses paid out of the football treasury. Now there are a second team of regular substitutes, and many possible candidates for either team, whose extra expenses are defrayed. Again, the students themselves are aware of the danger, and have selected for treasurer a graduate and a business man who will save hundreds of dollars for the organization, besides by his influence in a quiet way acting as a check on any tendency to unnecessary or extravagant expenditures. Though this officer has been in service only one year, the good results of his work already begin to manifest themselves, as the following figures will show. They are taken from a statement made at my request by the treasurer of the Financial Union. I quote from the letter, only making such changes as will render the statement clear to the general reader:

"I have given the total footings, you will see, of the expenses of the season of 1892 and also of the season of 1893. I have also given you all the items which ran over $1,000 on the expenses account. In comparing the total expenses, the comparison as given on this memorandum is from M——'s report, which was made the 1st of February, and H——'s report, at the same time in the year. It seems to be impossible to get in all the bills, so that the report shall be the same the 1st of February that it is when I hand in my final report of the year in the summer. For the sake of comparison, however, I would say this, that while M——'s report showed $15,284.62 expended when he put in his report, the total expenses of the football season of 1892, when closed up at the end of the college year, showed something over $1,000 more than this, and I should think the season of 1893 would show about the same addition. In either case, you see, it shows a saving in 1893 over the season of 1892, unless there are some outside bills which I, as treasurer, do not know about at present. In addition to that, we carried considerably more men in 1893.

"In the item of the training table, the sum shown on this report does not allow for the sum paid in by each man for his share of the board. As you know, it is the custom for each man to pay what he is paying regularly, so that from these items of the training table there would be a deduction of the amount paid in by the team. As this is not yet in, I have given you the figures as they stand without deducting the same. As nearly as I can calculate it now, Mr. C——, the manager, expects to get between five and six hundred dollars from this source, which would make the training table expenses pretty close down to $2,000. Mr. M——'s collections from the team were not as full as this, so that the saving at the training table will be even more than it appears in this memorandum I am sending you."

Season 1892. Season 1893.
Railroad expenses $1,505.48 $1,303.00
Hotels 3,174.29 2,400.27
'Bus bills 1,004.88 1,026.45
Uniforms and shoes 1,494.50 2,001.86
Training table 2,937.30 2,798.86
Total expenses $15,284.62 $13,171.95

Before leaving this subject it is only fair to say that there is one form of extravagance of which the football association is not guilty. They do not spend more than their income. They live very far within it. Combining with the baseball association in paying into the Financial Union their earnings, the two organizations more than make up the deficiencies of the others. After paying all bills of all the organizations the Financial Union is able to give $4,000 to the field association, $1,000 to the gymnasium, and still has a reserve fund for future contingencies.

Evil No. 3: Brutality. This is the hardest charge to meet, because there is such a difference of opinion as to what constitutes brutality. In the eyes of timid people any collisions between young men in the most properly conducted game would seem brutal, though these same collisions would be tame fun to the average schoolboy. Personal encounters of some kind seem absolutely necessary to the education of young men, especially young men of the strongest characters. Such young men, judiciously trained, constitute the best citizens of a State. A State full of such citizens becomes thereby the safest to live in, for such men are its best defense. At the dinner given by Colonel Higginson to the teams of Yale and Harvard, it was remarked by Mr. Ropes, the historian, that those nations which practiced semi-military games like football were not only the strongest nations, but that they were the least likely to rush into war; whereas other nations seemed to carry a chip on their shoulders, ready to fight on the smallest provocation. Certainly those who have been intimately acquainted with students and student life for the past twenty-five years can bear testimony not only to the decreasing brutality of college customs, but also to the generally mild and gentlemanly characters of the football players. They, by their influence and example in the college, have largely contributed to this better state of college life.

If violent encounters on the football field do lead to the temptation of inflicting needless personal injuries on an opponent, they also give opportunities for resisting this temptation, and consequently for the development of the highest forms of courage and self-control. According to the observations of the writer, these opportunities are embraced by the majority of the players. Only the minority yield to the temptation, and few of that minority attain to prominent places on a team. If the contrary were the fact, football would long ago have vanished from the list of college sports.

With reference to the evils of public contests—gate money and strains and injuries—the writer sees no reason to change the views already expressed.

"If field athletics are to continue, the expense of them must be met in one of two ways, either by gate money or by subscriptions. Most young men prefer to give their money at the gate and thus to pay for what they see. If a club knows that it is to spend only what it earns, it will be stimulated, first, to play as good a game as possible; and, secondly, to spend its earnings with prudence. It seems only just, too, that, if the public desire to see a good game, they should pay for the exhibition. The men work hard in practice, and are entitled to have their expenses paid. More than that they do not ask. They do not play for gain but for honor.

"The evil of liability to strains and injuries in athletics can not be entirely obviated. It is well to bear in mind, at this point, the fact that even those who are not athletes do not, therefore, enjoy immunity from accidents. Yet so far, according to the recollection of the writer, no regular member of a Yale crew, team, or nine has been permanently injured by participating in a race or match. Still, it is possible that a slight injury, to a person having organic weakness, might result in a fatal difficulty. Such an issue might be avoided by the requirement that every candidate for trial should be examined by a competent physician, and, in default of procuring a certificate of physical soundness, should be excluded from participation in physical contests."[3]

As to particular rules looking to the improvement of the game, none but experts should speak,[4] Yet it might be allowed to those who are interested in it, and who have watched it closely, to make suggestions along the lines in which improvements should be attempted. The present style of mass play and momentum play puts a premium on weight and brute force. The mingling men in masses makes injuries more probable than in an open style of play. The mass play makes the game as little as possible a kicking game. It eliminates a great deal of the element of skill. Skill ought to be encouraged by setting some sort of premium on it. Increasing the number of points scored by a drop-kick from the field might accomplish this somewhat. Some changes in the rules regarding "interference" would do more. If, again, the "warnings" for "rough play" were entirely omitted and the umpire were instructed to send a man off the field at the first offense, captains would train their men to avoid these plays entirely. Then the experts, in reforming the game, could not do better than turn their attention to the umpires. If a plan for training umpires could be devised it would be a good thing. Not every good player, however fair-minded he may be, makes a good umpire. A man without experience as a player, but yet possessing a quick eye, a decisive will, and a knowledge of the rules of the game, might be a better umpire than the most famous player.

As to interference by the faculties in the way of measures limiting the game, I have already hinted at one, namely, the requiring a certificate of physical soundness for every candidate for athletic honors. I would also limit teams to undergraduates. This measure would bring the teams better under the control of faculty supervision, and would besides put a certain limit to competition. In the first place, the professional schools do not exercise a strict personal supervision over the students. They assume, and rightly, that a man who commences the study of a profession has begun the serious business of life, and is capable of directing his own time. He may be absent from every exercise of the school except the examinations. Passing those, he can still be a member of the school in good and regular standing. Such a student, when in competition for a place on the team with a member of the undergraduate department, who is held up to attendance on daily exercises, has a great advantage over him. His freedom from restraint exercises a pernicious influence on the man who is subject to restraint. Concert of action between the faculties of undergraduate departments and those of graduate and professional schools in the way of control of any sport is almost impossible from the very circumstances of the case.

Instead of appointing committees to act with the students in the regulation of the sports, a better way to control them would be the appointment of a director of athletics to a seat in the undergraduate faculty, who should be the medium of communication between the students and the instructors. Such a man ought to have the confidence of the students and be in sympathy with them. He ought also to be a gentleman and a scholar, a graduate of the college, and a man holding its best traditions of righteousness and scholarship sacred. Such a man would be alive to the responsibilities of both sides—of the scholarship side as represented by the instructors, and of the healthy boy side of student life. I would not have the mangement of athletics taken by him out of the hands of the students, but I would have him help them with advice and with instruction, too, if necessary. I would have him attend the practice games and the races, oversee the coaches and trainers, and watch the players and students. He could prevent, without recourse to "reporting to the faculty," repetitions of mistakes and follies on the part of the students. He could keep out bad men from the list of trainers. He could prevent many a promising lad from wrecking himself by making the excitement of college sport the be-all and end-all of his existence. By his presence among the instructors he could, as opportunity offered, with timely words, fend off those sad mistakes which worthy gentlemen of the best intentions sometimes make in their dealings with boys—mistakes of which I think I am justified in saying that Yale has not often been guilty in the past fifteen years. The director would earn his salary if he did faithfully what his hand found to do.

If such men were appointed by all the colleges, and if joint action by the colleges at any time seemed desirable, these men would be best fitted to deal with questions which might arise, and would discover solutions of existing difficulties without recommending unpractical and impossible plans.

  1. The Popular Science Monthly, March and February, 1884.
  2. The style of the game will be changed by the adoption of the new rules, lately recommended by the committee of graduates.
  3. The Popular Science Monthly, March, 1884.
  4. Since this article was written the Committee on the Revision of the Rules of Football have met and recommended changes which are substantially in harmony with the suggestions made by the writer in this paragraph.