Culture  /  Explainer

'Hit the Line Hard'

During the cold war, football’s violence became precisely its point.

American football as a shorthand for endangered national values—patriotism, virtue, loyalty—did not begin with the cold war. Fifty-two years earlier, in an essay titled “The American Boy,” written for a children’s magazine, New York governor Teddy Roosevelt counseled young Americans to treat life like a football game and “hit the line hard.” Roosevelt didn’t play football himself; at the time, very few Americans did, and for the first several decades of the sport’s history it existed as a haphazard derivative of rugby played almost exclusively by college students in the Ivy League, where Roosevelt had first been exposed to the game as a Harvard undergraduate. But even leaders of those institutions maligned the sport as unseemly and gruesome. “As a spectacle,” wrote Harvard University President Charles William Eliot in 1905, “football is more brutalizing than prizefighting, cockfighting, or bullfighting.” That year, during which nineteen college football players died in one season from injuries sustained in the course of play, Roosevelt, convinced nevertheless of the sport’s character-building potential, leveraged his power as president to help rehabilitate it.

In October, after several universities canceled their football seasons, Roosevelt invited the coaches and athletics advisers of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton to the White House to broker a compromise between the game’s purists, such as the Yale coach Walter Camp, and those who felt it needed to overcome its increasingly dishonorable reputation. From their summit grew the Intercollegiate Athletic Association, later the National College Athletics Association (NCAA), which tried to curtail the game’s more barbaric elements by introducing a number of rule changes, such as the legalization of the forward pass, which helped to spread out the violent scrum at the line of scrimmage, and the introduction of a “neutral zone” between the offensive and defensive lines. Gradually the game began to resemble its current form, but fatalities still multiplied, with forty in 1931 alone. “If football is the testing ground where the real man is revealed…are we to abandon it because death intrudes even there?” asked the dean of Yale College at the funeral of an Army cadet who sustained a fatal neck injury playing in that year’s Yale–West Point game. “I do not think so.”

Over the next three decades, politicians, military officers, and football coaches alike helped portray the sport as a seedbed of military prowess, frequently and brazenly instrumentalizing the game’s savagery as a corrective to what they perceived as the feminization of American men and the dilution of the national character. It was after World War II that these nationalist overtones crystallized both in performance, like the pompous flyover jet rituals that often precede NFL games, and in the self-important rhetoric of the game’s most zealous promoters.