Popular Science Monthly/Volume 68/March 1906/Newspaper Football

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By Professor EDWIN G. DEXTER,


THAT the game of football as played at our schools and colleges is in ill repute with the people as a class, no one who keeps at all abreast of the times can deny. Nor can it be denied that there are many good reasons for the feelings of general disapproval. The game, in common with other athletic pursuits, puts an undue premium upon certain human (or inhuman) characteristics which are altogether at variance with the highest ideals of the institutions which maintain it. It has too, in some instances, established relations that are to be regretted with professional interests and professional methods. It has, through its immense popularity and consequent tremendous gate receipts, given rise to financial problems that are not easy of solution, and it is, according to the newspaper, seemingly excessively dangerous to life and limb. In spite of the gravity of the other deplorable features of the game, we can hardly doubt the present wide-spread revulsion of popular feeling is due most largely to the last mentioned cause, for it is the one most prominently before the people. The others are treated in an academic way in occasional articles and editorials which are read by comparatively few people, but during the football season no reader of the daily papers can fail to be impressed with the great number of news items, each relating to some fatality or instance of serious injury on the gridiron. Hardly a Sunday issue of any of our principal city dailies has appeared during the past football season without including from three to a dozen or even more of such paragraphs till one was led to wonder whether any of our pig-skin warriors would survive the campaign. So much at variance were these reports with prevailing sentiment and conditions in a few football quarters with which I was personally familiar that I was led at the close of the last football season to endeavor to find out whether the report fitted the facts more exactly in others. This I did by writing personal letters to all those reported 'seriously injured' in a number of the leading daily newspapers of the country. Each letter specified the particular injury reported, as well as the date of the game and asked the following questions:

1. Were you in good training?
2. How much time did you lose from school work because of the injury?
3. Have you entirely recovered?
4. Is there any probability that the injury will prove permanent?

In all 135 letters were sent out: 78 to players upon college teams; 39 upon public school teams—mostly high school—and 13 to players upon athletic-clubs and other unclassified teams.

Before discussing the particular replies to the letters, I wish to say that I recognize fully that in appealing for information to football men I am going to interested witnesses for testimony. If these men had not been partizans of football they would not have played the game and consequently would not have been injured. Yet the questions are largely those of fact and not of mere opinion, and I doubt if we should in any important way impeach their testimony. I recognize, too, a possible basis for criticism in my making the loss of time from class work the criterion for judging the seriousness of the injury suffered. It is probably true that one might meet with serious or even ultimately fatal mishap on the football field without immediate incapacitation for classroom work. Yet such cases would be in all probability exceedingly rare, and the question of class-absence taken in connection with the next two questions would seem to be sufficiently conclusive. If one had lost no time from an injury which at the time of answering the query—some weeks later—was entirely recovered, it would seem as if the injury was of no great consequence. Certain it is that no interference with the main aim of college life, i. e. study, had been suffered. The only other sufficiently definite criterion for the measure of the injury would be that of enforced absence from football practise. This does not seem to me to be as fair a basis of judgment as the other, since it means to measure the perfection of physical condition not by an ordinary, but by an extraordinary, physical stress. It would also involve the problem of saving a man for a particular game rather than keeping him out purely and simply because of the injury, and would thus tend to introduce error.

Up to the time of writing this paper (January 20), 84 replies have been received, 60 of which are from college men, 22 from high-school players and 2 from others. Twenty-four letters, have been returned marked by the postmaster 'no such person in the directory.' An analysis of the 60 replies from college men shows the following somewhat interesting facts:

First, that 14 of the number assert the entire falsity of the report; in one or two instances the man had not even played the game in question; in the rest, any injury whatsoever is denied.

Second, the 46 other college men acknowledge the report as true in a general way. Of this number, however, 24 say that the injury was the merest trifle and that no time whatsoever was lost from classes.

Third, the time lost from college work on the part of the 22 college players who specify some loss as follows:

1 hour 1
1 day 2
2 days 4
3 days 1
1 week 5
1 to 2 weeks 2

The remaining seven report a longer time averaging about a month, though three say 'am staying out until Christmas.'

Fourth, of the 60 college players reporting, twelve stated that at the time of answering my letter they had not wholly recovered from the injury. When we consider that in some instances the reply was made within a week or two of the time of injury and in no instance more than two months after, this number does not seem excessive. With the exception of the persons noted under fifth, the answers seem to indicate the later stages of convalescence. Some of them read: muscles still weak,' 'leg still in plaster cast but will be out in a few days,' 'still a little lame,' 'three teeth not yet recovered, but dentist doing his best,' 'ankle a little stiff yet' and 'have not fully recovered but was able to play the Nebraska, Wisconsin and Chicago games' (this from a Michigan man).

Fifth, on the part of five players it could not be said with certainty that the injury would not prove permanent. Michigan, Columbia, Harvard, Chicago and Illinois each has one in this class. For these men the particular injury and the reply to the question as to, permanence are as follows:

(1) Ligament of knee ruptured. 'Can't say definitely. Think not.'
(2) Spine wrenched. 'Physicians say I shall ultimately recover.'
(3) Blow on head. 'My orders from the doctors are: If you remain quiet and take good care of yourself you will entirely recover.'
(4) Partial detachment of retina. 'It is not unlikely that a part of this area will remain permanently detached from choroid.' (Signed by physician).
(5) Knee injured, floating cartilage. 'Very serious and, unless an operation could eliminate it, the danger of a very unreliable knee.'

This completes the record of the college men, except for the fact that all but five assert that they were in good training. This, however, means nothing in itself, since we have no means of knowing what proportion of the whole number of men playing football were unseasoned.

With the high school players, the facts seem to coincide more nearly with the printed reports. Of these, twenty-two in all, but two denied the report in toto, although eight others stated that no time was lost from classes. The rest on the whole lost a considerably larger average of time than did the college men. A delightfully optimistic lot of boys were these gridiron youngsters, not one of whom would grant the slightest possibility of permanent injury. One acknowledged 'a fine headache for several days and a slightly crooked nose which was the fault of the Docktor.' Another adds: 'And I am glad to say I couldn't carry out the ashes.' Only eleven dared say that they were in good training.

In their bearing upon the purpose of this study, which was, as I have said, to determine if possible the accuracy of newspaper reports of football injury, what do these returns mean? Seemingly, so far as college players are concerned, they tend to prove the utter unreliability of the press reports. What are the facts in support of this? Seventy-eight reports of 'serious injury' to college men appear in a single season, many of them described in detail and under 'scare headlines.' From sixty of these persons replies were received, while the letters addressed to fourteen others are returned unopened, indicating in all likelihood that there was no such person, since in every instance the name, the team and the words 'football player' were on the envelope. And of the sixty heard from, but five can, it seems to me, with any degree of fairness be considered 'seriously injured,' and with them it is a question. Upon such reports is the present popular revulsion against football founded. Nor is the condition that I have pointed out either local or of recent standing. The reports that I have studied appeared in papers in all parts of the country, and a series of letters sent out by me at the close of the football season of 1902 gave results in no way differing from these. Of twenty-three college men reported seriously injured that season, 2 stated that the report was false; ten lost no time, and in every instance recovery was complete. If it were not for the tragedy of it all, some of the reports would be better fitted for the comic supplement than the news columns. Note the following that appeared in a leading paper at the close of the last season under heavy headlines, 'The Dead and How They Were Killed.'

Latimore, Joseph, at Mukwonago, Wis. September 13. He was rubber down for the Northwestern University team at the training camp at Mukwonago. He had been left at quarters while the team went for a row. The manner of his drowning is not known. The body was found the next day.

The entire list contained the names of 18 others, who are presumably dead and supposedly so from the direct effect of football. Within a comparatively recent time one of the foremost daily papers of the country appeared with the scare headlines 'Football Player Killed,' for no more valid reasons in one case than the killing of an ex-football player by the cars on a grade crossing, and the other the electrocution of a boy on a scrub team, who had climbed an electric-light pole to remove the ball, which had, by accident, lodged in the lamp. Such mishaps should not be charged up to the game. No advocate of the game of football should fear the truth so far as the dangers of the game are concerned, yet every believer in it has a right to resent the unfair playing upon popular fears and emotions by a public press that is either culpably careless in the gathering of news, or worse.

Football is not a gentle game, and the boy who is entirely satisfied with tiddle-dy-winks, as well as his father, who in his day had been satisfied with similar games, may deem it over-strenuous. But no youth of bone and muscle who hears even the faintest 'Call of the Wild' echoing down from a thousand generations of fighting ancestors—and they must have been fighters or they would never have been ancestors—comes to his own without somewhere and somehow a chance at the physical try out with worthy adversaries. With the days of almost universal war superseded by days of as universal peace and the knight-errant and the tournament things of the past, if we emasculate football and attempt to eliminate entirely the danger element, we shall close the last safety valve to virile expression and may well expect an explosion. Newspaper football is excessively dangerous, but is, after all, football of the college gridiron? In a statistical study which I have made covering ten years of play (1892-1902) in sixty-four leading colleges and universities, where 22,766 men played upon 1,374 different teams, but three men were fatally injured, eight permanently injured and but three men in each hundred sufficiently injured to lose time from their class work. And Harvard was within the list studied, in spite of what might be inferred from reports for the past season. President Hadley was right when he said a few days ago that football was not only not an excessively dangerous game as played at our colleges, but the least dangerous of the more important sports. But he was not speaking of newspaper football.