Efforts to Make Football Less Violent Date Back to Theodore Roosevelt’s Presidency

Reform efforts are nothing new

Theodore Roosevelt
U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) waves while delivering a speech from a platform.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

If you’ve ever watched a game of football and been worried about the violence taking place on the field — a subject that’s been on many sports fans’ minds lately, for obvious reasons — rest assured that you’re not alone in this. Observers of the sport being concerned about its effect on players is something that hearkens back many years — in fact, one of the highest-profile advocates for reforming the sport was none other than Theodore Roosevelt, who’s been dead for over a century.

While some of the methods discussed to keep players safe have changed in recent years, the shape of the discussion remains somewhat similar: alarm that elite athletes slamming into one another at high speeds could be bad for their health.

A new article at JSTOR Daily revisits Roosevelt’s efforts to reform the sport, which date back to 1903 and found the president bringing together representatives from colleges in which the game was played. As the article notes, the changes were designed to minimize some of the overt violence of the game, including players targeting the opponents for injuries.

The changes that arose from these meetings will be familiar to anyone watching the sport in 2023, including forward passing and the process by which a new set of downs are established. The article points out that these reforms didn’t solve all of the sport’s problems, though — 26 college players died two years after the reforms were established. Further calls for reform have arisen ever since.

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