Giving 'Em Fitz: Banning football in 1905 would have been the right move

Posted: November 11, 2013

To: Charles Eliot, President of Harvard (1869-1909)

Re: Banning football

Sorry, Charlie.

Turns out you and all those other high-collared, high-minded, Gilded Age reformers were right when it came to football.

More than a century ago, when you were calling for its prohibition, you better understood the nature of the game than we do today.

You saw the grim toll of injury and death and weren't afraid to call the sport "barbaric." You condemned it as "a fight whose strategy and ethics are those of war." And, unlike your successors as America's university presidents, you weren't afraid to call for its abolition.

It almost happened in 1905, that tragic year when 19 college football players died. The resulting outrage, and I'm not telling you anything you don't know, shook ivy-covered walls from Cambridge to California.

You and many other educators, already grappling with the ominous rise of big-time athletics on your campuses, thought this youthful but violent sport to be a grisly intruder.

But President Theodore Roosevelt, who played football at Harvard when you were its president, intervened and managed a compromise.

Football was saved. And a lot of lives in the century to come would be destroyed.

The game has changed considerably since those Saturday afternoons when fans donned a bowler and topcoat and rah-rah-sis-boom-bah-ed in Harvard Stadium.

It's played professionally now. The rules are far different. The forward pass has become dominant. The competitors are bigger, faster, and better-equipped. And, sorry to report, Harvard now stinks.

But there's one thing you'd recognize about football in 2013 - the gruesome physical toll it takes on its participants.

We don't see as many on-the-field deaths as you did, thank God, though there were several this year at the high school level.

What we do see, however, is an alarming epidemic of head injuries. Their impact on players' brains, on players' futures, is truly frightening.

We're still learning about the problem, still calculating how and how many it afflicts. But, it seems to me, we already know more than enough to ask why, in the face of such obvious and serious health risks, we continue to play.

Every day we hear about ex-football players enfeebled by the cumulative effect of these head traumas.

Old, middle-aged, and sometimes young men are prematurely developing Alzheimer's and other serious mental disorders. A few have ALS. Some are waiting for death. Others suffer so intensely they can't wait.

Junior Seau was a wonderful professional player. He performed with a visible joy. Last year, he shot himself to death. He was 43.

A brain autopsy found he suffered from CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). A degenerative disease that had not been identified in your time, CTE's symptoms are anyone's worst nightmare - impaired judgment, loss of impulse control, aggression, depression, memory loss, and dementia.

Several other football players have killed themselves. Not surprisingly, CTE was found in those whose brains were autopsied.

Just last week, Tony Dorsett, the epitome of grace, speed, and evasiveness on the football field, had the disease diagnosed in him. He admitted he'd thought about suicide.

The National Football League must think that, like Jacksonville Jaguars season-ticket holders, we're all idiots. In light of all these tragedies and a growing body of scientific evidence, the league continues to insist there are no direct links between football and CTE.

What's so sad and telling about the NFL's reaction is that, as you will recall, virtually the same thing happened in your day.

Then as now, rules were changed, new safety measures adopted, equipment improved. A commission was formed and a study undertaken. Walter Camp, who was your era's Mr. Football, collected data from former players on injuries and their severity.

More than 20 percent reported some permanent damage. But when Camp published his findings, he conveniently forgot to include that damning fact. (Then again, Charlie, what can you expect from a Yale man?)

The NFL, according to a new book on the subject, has been doing the same for decades, ignoring or demeaning evidence that might cast the league in a bad light.

How can we allow this to happen? How many former stars will suffer and die so that we can satisfy our football obsession?

You're a smart guy, educated in the classics at Boston Latin and Harvard. Surely you can see the game's similarities to the gladiatorial combat of ancient Rome. The jaded bloodlust. The spectacle. The huge arenas and crowds. The vicious hits and the subsequent ovations.

All that's missing are the wild beasts.

Garrett Fagan, a professor of ancient history at Penn State, sees the connection.

"I suspect if we staged a gladiator spectacle," Fagan said, "and we picked the right constituency to staff it - people who are commonly regarded by society as expendable, such as death-row inmates - I think we could fill Beaver Stadium."

Beaver Stadium, by the way, holds nearly twice as many people as Harvard Stadium.


Yes, the game that sometimes sickened you has endured and prospered beyond what you could have imagined in 1905.

So despite the daily drumbeat of football-related deaths and dementias, nobody's talking seriously anymore about abolishing the sport.

Part of the problem is that we can't seem to focus. In our 24-7 news cycle - I'll explain that some other time - we're too readily distracted by issues like bullying, steroids, and Chip Kelly's offense.

The life-and-death significance of these brain injuries is big news one day, back-burner the next.

Then again, opponents of the game are facing a much more fearsome opponent than you ever did. Today's game generates billions; has powerful supporters; and, quite frankly, seems permanently embedded in a culture increasingly inured to violence.

I understand football's popularity. But does an 18 rating/46 share offset its enormous risks?

If a toddler chokes on a toy, we yank it from the marketplace. If a car or a head of lettuce is deemed unsafe, we recall them.

And yet, as countless players suffer and die, as their widows weep and their children grieve, football rolls on, unquestioned and unchallenged.

From time to time, this cycle will repeat itself. A player will die or go mad or file a lawsuit. Equipment and rules will be tweaked. Settlements will be reached.

The subject of brain damage will return briefly to the headlines and just as quickly disappear.

A minor headache for football's officials. A major tragedy for its participants.

But then again, Charlie, I'm not telling you anything you don't know.


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