"Slaughter of the Innocents": When D.C. Considered Banning High School Football

In 1909, one woman kicked off a heated debate in the nation's capitol, pitting skeptical educators against football supporters about whether the sport belonged in schools at all.

Nov 29 2016, 4:15pm

Library of Congress

Ida Daly was fed up. It was the fall of 1909, and Daly, the president of the teachers' association in Washington, D.C., was troubled by a series of gruesome injuries that had taken place during the college football season.

Navy quarterback Earl Wilson lay in an Annapolis, Maryland, hospital bed with a broken neck, paralyzed. In New York, Army tackle Eugene Byrne had died from brain and spinal injuries. And in Pennsylvania, medical student Michael Burke also had died, suffering a cerebral hemorrhage while playing for the Medico-Chirurgical College team.

Each young man had been injured while tackling in a game. It wasn't supposed to be this way. Four years earlier, President Theodore Roosevelt had convened a White House meeting of gridiron experts and power brokers in order to make the sport safer. Reforms followed—establishing the ten-yard down system, limiting mass formations, encouraging referees to call unnecessary roughness penalties—only now football didn't seem to be cooperating.

Read More: Friday Night Lights Out: The Case for Abolishing High School Football

In response, Daly took a controversial stand. In a Washington Herald column published on November 10th of that year, she argued that high school football produced academic cheating, financial losses, and athlete misbehavior, all while physically maiming the same children she and other teachers were supposed to be educating.

Describing football as a "slaughter of the innocents," Daly called for the sport's abolition.

"Educators have failed miserably in wrestling with this problem," she wrote. "They seem to be afraid of their own popularity, or a loss of patronage. The only hope lies with the parents. In many instances the pupils are not permitted to ask their parents' permission to play until after the team is made."

Does football belong in high schools? A century before the rise of contemporary concerns over concussions and neurodegenerative diseases like chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), Americans were already debating whether the game was too violent for prep players.

The heated argument in the nation's capitol—kicked off in earnest by Daly's article and mirrored across the country, pitting skeptical educators against football supporters—illuminates just how much, and how little, things have changed.

The 1905 Washington, D.C. Eastern High School football team. Wikimedia Commons

In the wake of Daly's article, Washington-area football coaches mocked her "slaughter" comment. They argued that the sport's ability to teach children lessons in manhood and teamwork outweighed its risks, and that "serious injuries" were virtually non-existent among the city's teams.

Meanwhile, a group of principals from Washington's five public high schools held a meeting. Daly was not invited. According to a report in the Herald, they belittled the teachers' association president with "indignant" and "intense" language. They rejected a ban on prep football, and refused to stiffen academic requirements for athletic eligibility.

In a follow-up interview, Daly held her ground. "It is proof of the brutalizing effects of the game that they don't know slaughter when they see it," she said.

By the 1900s, battles over prep football were nothing new. A handful of small-town schools in Massachusetts, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri, and Kansas had dropped the sport, and educators in larger cities like New York, Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Louis had debated doing the same.

Worries about football's brutality and suitability for children dated back to the 1890s, when schoolboy leagues for the rugby-style game were forming across the country. Buoyed by the burgeoning popularity of college football, the sport caught on at public high schools and private prep academies alike.

In 1894, the War Department halted games between West Point and the Naval Academy, under pressure from officers and parents who blamed football for everything from injuries to gambling among ensigns and cadets. On Thanksgiving of that year, Georgetown University halfback George Bahen was paralyzed during an in-game brawl between his team and a group of club players.

Bedridden for months, Bahen later died of an infection. The school's faculty called for football's banishment. Concurrently, doctors were taking note of the game's dangers—skull fractures, brain bleeds and concussions, spinal trauma, nose and throat injuries, organ rupture, joint-bone injuries, and infections—and condemning it, as well. One news report about a youth football team stated that a Cincinnati grade school took "the appearance of a miniature hospital."

"Several of the boys of the town have hobbled about for days and attended school only with the aid of crutches," the report read. "Others have appeared with bandaged limbs, and scratches and bruises have been and are now a very common sight. What makes the aspect of affairs more serious is the knowledge that these boys in nearly every instance are from 10 to 15 years of age and not as yet out of the grammar grades."

This was an era of new awareness for juvenile welfare, with headlining social crusades against liquor, cigarettes, pool halls, theaters, and child labor. Football abolition talk grew louder; a number of colleges and ten states considered anti-football bills or policies. Ultimately, however, no legislature or major university banned the sport. It was simply too popular, too beloved.

Critics lamented that colleges made a public show of worrying about injuries and fatalities while privately coveting the money and publicity the sport could provide.

"It is a lack of real moral manliness on the part of the governing powers," said Rev. J.J. Tobias, an Episcopalian minister in Chicago. "There is a mania and rivalry for large numbers on the college rolls which makes presidents timid and under a compromising policy."

An anonymous North Carolina college president quoted in the Charlotte Observer was more blunt.

"Don't fight the game," the president said. "It is no use."

Teddy Roosevelt was a big high school football fan. Wikimedia Commons

In Washington, fights were the problem. Throughout the early 1900s, schoolboy and prep football was marred by "slugging" among players on and off the field. President Roosevelt, a famed football fan, told boys that fisticuffs were sometimes warranted in moral, manly defense of themselves, but others worried that the sport blurred the lines between bully and defender, and too often devolved into a violent free-for-all.

"There seems to be a spirit of fight manifested throughout these contests," judge Thomas F. Miller observed while hearing a football brawling case in the city's police court. "People get hurt and killed and much malice is shown. If the games are to be conducted in the future as in the past then players should go out into the woods [like illicit pugilists]."

After the 1903 football season concluded, the D.C. school board issued a warning:

"The board has had its attention directed to a growing strenuousness and carelessness in inflicting injury in the football games and the schools. While highly appreciating the value of all reasonable athletic sports, the board will aim to sharply check all tendencies toward rowdyism and savagery.... The statistics of the game for the year show a startling list of players killed and the serious maiming of many more. No self-respecting school organization should tolerate such manslaughter in the name of athletics, and the board will not fail to take notice of brutality in play and, if need be ... to prohibit the game in the schools."

More fights and injuries marred the next Washington school season, with police arresting two players for attacking a rival on the streets. As the Washington Evening Star chastised the sport for devolving into "a community of young bullies" and the Washington Post extended blame to the players' football coach, the school board appointed a committee to investigate the matter.

The committee declined to ban football, instead announcing that the game would remain "on trial." Editorials in the Post and Star applauded the decision, but debate hardly stopped. By the time Daly issued her 1909 abolition demand, the idea had support from Patrick John Ryan, the archbishop of Philadelphia, who called the sport "barbarous."

Daly's cause received a tragic, powerful boost on November 13th of that year, when University of Virginia halfback Archer Christian sustained head blows while playing in a game on Georgetown's front lawn. He died the next morning, sending Washington into an anti-football panic.

District commissioners and police openly pondered a law against football, and they suggested Congress might probe the sport. Worried parents besieged educators and coaches with complaints. The superintendent of Washington schools publicly endorsed abolishment.

"If I had my way, I would abolish the game in every school and college in the country," said Mary Church Terrell, a member of the board of education. "I have been inveighing against football for more than twenty years."

The same principals who had mocked Daly were now playing defense, announcing that they would suspend high school football until rule changes could make it safer. It didn't help their cause that college football was in a parallel uproar, one that Syracuse University chancellor James Roscoe Day summed up by stating:

"Improved rules have made the game more deadly. Athletics seem to be chiefly designed to advertise the colleges instead of serve the students. Players are being bribed and proselyted by the various institutions. Colleges are billed like circuses, men advertised as stars, and [scholarly] men are held up as mollycoddles who play brain ahead of brawn.... Coaches are paid more than college presidents."

Perhaps out of genuine concern—or perhaps as a diversionary tactic—football's collegiate leaders trained their sights on the prep game. The national rules committee questioned whether school football should be banned. Officials at several universities unequivocally endorsed abolition, including the presidents of Notre Dame, Stanford, and Michigan. Coaches at Georgia Tech and the University of Chicago concurred, the latter publicly backed by 50 former players.

In Virginia, the Washington Post reported, "minor football teams all over the State are being disbanded because parents object to their boys participating in a game that injures and kills so many victims. It is coming to be recognized that it is impossible to continue the play under the present rules. Officials of schools in the majority of instances are insisting upon disbandment."

A football game at Washington, D.C.'s Central High School, circa 1915-23. Courtesy Library of Congress

Back in Washington, football backers regrouped. Longtime D.C. presiding commissioner Henry B.F. MacFarland—a friend of President Roosevelt's—convened a meeting of experts that included PE teachers, sportswriters, and football-friendly school administrators. No opponents of the sport were invited, but the group did include local coaches Thomas Kirby and William Peet, who just happened to double as the sports editors for the local Times and Herald newspapers.

Kirby, a former Georgetown football star, met with college football rulemakers in New York City, soliciting ideas for safety reforms. He then wrote about the meetings in a front-page Times story. "Football will be saved," he wrote. "The most intensely interesting game the colleges have ever known, the sport which has annually drawn larger crowds than all the other branches of athletics combined ... is to be completely revolutionized and placed on a purer, saner, and safer basis before the beginning of another campaign."

What sort of revolution? Well, football already had gone through what the rules committee promised would be "radical reform" on five different occasions since 1894. So mostly, it was warmed-over, previously promised ideas: enforcing violations of "mass" blocking and "unnecessary roughness" like punching; medically supervising all play; properly training and coaching players, especially to hit with their "heads up" and held aside; reducing contact; limiting game length; and developing better body armor, notably anti-concussion helmets.

If this all sounds familiar in 2016, note that it all sounded familiar back then, too; rules committee secretary Edward K. Hall remarked that "you may recall any theory you ever heard of in your lives, and you may be sure that it has been discussed by this committee today."

But no matter. By 1912, the game had adopted another tweak, allowing forward passing from anywhere behind the scrimmage line. This proved crucial. Did it make the sport less risky? Perhaps. Did it make the sport more entertaining? Without question. Fans loved the "new football," and the nation's capitol was no exception. In D.C., the revolt against high school football stalled. As time went on, the federal government even expanded the sport's reach, subsidizing new teams at schools, parks, and military installations. Daly's call—and her critique—would end up a historical footnote.

"I am in doubt as to whether the game is safer than it was in years past," football rule-maker Jonas A. Babbitt of Haverford College said of the forward pass. "But public opinion seems to hold that it is safer." Back then, as now, that was enough.

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