Friday, June 17, 2011

17 June 1906: Trustees Vote to Abolish Football at UGA

On this day in 1906, the following alarming headline and story ran on page 1 of the Sunday Athens Banner:

Trustees Pass Resolution Declaring That After This Year Football Must Cease at That Institution. 
This Action of the Board Will No Doubt Cause Considerable Discussion.

The wearers of the long hair and kickers of the pigskin will soon have to give up the fight in the University of Georgia. 
After this year there will be no more football played by the University students, unless the rules of the game are decidedly modified. 
That is the decision of the Board of Trustees and what they have to say on the subject is final.
The matter was brought up in the meeting of the board yesterday by Judge George F. Gober, and the resolution introduced by him was passed after very little debate.
The trustees will not interfere with the game this year, as the team has already contracts covering a number of games, but after this year all these games will cease. 
This action of the board is sure to cause discussion among those who favor the game but the sentiment of the board on the subject is quite pronounced.

News of such a decision would not have been a surprise in 1906. Earlier that year, trustees at Harvard and the University of South Carolina had made similar votes, banning the sport because of its "brutality" and tendency to be a distraction from intellectual endeavors. Though injuries and player deaths were the primary focus of criticism, the loudest voice against the new sport of football was more concerned by the moral hazards posed by the game.

Leading the charge against football was Harvard president Charles Eliot, who felt the game taught students to be dishonorable, such as when a running back exploited the weakest point on the opposing team's line in order to advance the ball. He felt the passion around the game by spectators in the stands was divisive, as people tended to cheer for only their own team.  It should be noted that President Eliot also considered baseball "a game of trickery," citing the deception of the curve ball, and believed true sportsmen did not require umpires or referees for their activities.

Among the more ardent defenders of football on the national level was President Theodore Roosevelt, who believed that the "rough play and occasional injuries" built moral character in America's young men. Princeton professor Woodrow Wilson also defended the game, believing it "encouraged valuable qualities such as precision, decision, presence of mind and endurance." In a debate with a Cornell professor on the subject, Wilson said, "I believe it develops more moral qualities than any other game of athletics." 

On a more local level, newly elected University of Georgia chancellor David C. Barrow was a supporter of the game of football. Several weeks after his appointment by the same trustees who had originally voted to abolish the game if changes were not made to the rules, he told the Athens Banner that football was "a rough game" but that "more men are saved by the training than injured by the game," that there was far less fighting amongst the student population since football had been introduced in 1894, that it was "the best training in self control I know of, certainly for a young man," and that even those who don't play on the field "get behind the team" and learn lessons in loyalty that would be equally applicable to community, state, and country in their adult lives. 

Within a week after the initial vote, the trustees decided to leave any decisions in the hands of the faculty, provided certain changes were made to the rules of the game. Since these rules were already being adopted by the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association, of which the University of Georgia and most schools they regularly played were members, the threat of losing football at UGA was never seen as inexorable. 

On a national level, more than a dozen new rules were enacted, including shortening the game to two 30-minute halves, defining "tripping" and "hurdling" and making both actions illegal, and introducing the forward pass as an acceptable form of ball advancementHowever, for some, football reform was irrelevant. Football critic and University of California president Benjamin Wheeler told the New York Times in September, 1906, that game of football would soon die out, and be rightly replaced by the more established and honorable game of rugby

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