National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell says that if he had a son, the boy would be allowed to play football. Promoters of the youth game agree, of course, like Scott Hallenbeck, USA Football's executive director, and Julian Bailes, Pop Warner's medical director; both men had sons who played football in school.
While advocating tackle football for minors is an increasingly tricky proposition, given the ongoing national debate over brain trauma, the idea of the conflicted parent is nothing new. For as long as the game has been played, even its staunchest defenders have had to grapple with the physical costs like joint damage and bone fracture. Perhaps no one embodies this ambivalence more than Theodore Roosevelt, the manly-man man's man who once wrote that "in life, as in a football game, the principle to follow is: Hit the line hard; don't foul and don't shirk, but hit the line hard!"
Yet even the famously pro-football president was worried when his son took up the sport over a century ago.
Of course, you wouldn't have known that from his public posturing. During the 1890s, Roosevelt, then working in the Civil Service Commission, spent his spare time proselytizing for the sport, extolling its virtues and blasting "fool" critics in speeches, letters, and freelance articles. He particularly resented Charles W. Eliot, who as president of Harvard University—Roosevelt's alma mater—led a faculty movement to reform if not end the sport on campus, calling football "unfit for college use" in its brutality.
While Roosevelt himself had chosen not to play football in college, he ripped into Eliot before fellow alumni at the Harvard Club of Washington. "I am the father of three boys," Roosevelt declared. "I will say right here that if I thought any one of them would weigh a possible broken bone against the glory of being chosen to play on Harvard's football team, I would disinherit him!" The Harvard men cheered, exclaiming, "That's the stuff, Teddy!"
Hysteric notions of manhood swept America in the post-Civil War period, driven by cultural fear of an "emasculated" generation of young men devoid of military experience. As agrarian life gave way to creeping urbanization and industrialization, the voices of Social Darwinism sounded the softness alarm. How would tender boys become hearty men? Symbols of ruggedness became popular, and football's violence fit the bill. Roosevelt, an acclaimed Muscular Christian and shrewd, rising politician, coined "The Strenuous Life" narrative in a speech, and argued there was no better man-molding activity than football.
As such, no critic of the sport was safe, not even friends of the Roosevelt family. Maria Longworth Storer, who was married to Rep. Bellamy Storer of Ohio and often visited the Roosevelt home, once expressed her hope that the family's boys wouldn't play "savage" football. Theodore reacted angrily, Storer later recalled: "He glared at me, and said through his clenched teeth: 'I would rather one of them should die than have them grow up weaklings.'"
In private, however, Roosevelt was far less strident.
President Theodore Roosevelt. Photo by Library of Congress
In the fall of 1901, Roosevelt had just entered the Oval Office, succeeding the assassinated William McKinley after serving as Vice President. Meanwhile, his 14-year-old son, Theodore Jr., or Ted, began playing football at the exclusive Groton School in Massachusetts, a fertile recruiting ground for college coaches. Ted promptly suffered a broken collarbone and a broken tooth.
Edith Kermit Roosevelt, Theodore's reserved but forceful wife, wasn't wholly sold on having their sons play football. Referring to Ted's broken collarbone, Theodore joked that his spouse was "was rather glad of it, for she thought it saved him from breaking his neck." In a 1902 letter to Groton headmaster and close friend Endicott Peabody, Roosevelt sheepishly discussed his son's football situation.
The problem, as Peabody would describe in a subsequent letter, was simple. Ted was gutsy. He was also small and slow, too slow to play anywhere except line, where he constantly went against larger boys and endured predictable physical punishment. Theodore and Edith also worried that other kids targeted Ted on the field, and they made sure he played only at the junior varsity level.
Like his wife, Roosevelt worried for his son's safety. "Dear Cotty: Pray do not think me grown timid in my old age  until you read this note through," he wrote in 1902. "In addition to Ted's collar-bone, the dentist tells me that he has killed one front tooth in foot ball, and that the tooth will get black." The president went on to tell Peabody that scrawny Ted was not to face "heavy boys": "I am afraid if he goes on like this he will get battered out before he can play in college."
When Ted broke his nose the following year and stopped playing prep football altogether, his father sounded relieved in a letter, dated November 15, 1903: "I am much interested in your broken nose, and I am glad the football season has come to an end as far as you are concerned."
Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. (to the right of the man with the bow tie) and the 1905 Harvard football team. Photo by Library of Congress
By 1905, however, Ted was back on the gridiron giving Harvard football the old college try. Despite standing just five-foot-seven and weighing 145 pounds, he played as a tight end and quickly sustained a facial laceration during football practice in early October, garnering national headlines as first casualty on the Harvard freshmen team.
Most games saw Ted led off the field before the final whistle. As the young Roosevelt racked up the injuries, journalists lauded his courage—one wrote that he "seem[ed] not to mind the way his opponents trampled on him."
While football continued to beat up on Ted, his father was fighting to save it. By 1905, the game was reaching new heights of brutality and lethality: punching, drop-kicking, and lining up in the punishing "flying wedge" formation were all allowed. Calls to reform or ban the sport had reached a fevered pitch, with Eliot, the Harvard president, leading the charge. "No sport is wholesome in which ungenerous or mean acts which easily escape detection contribute to victory, whether such acts can be occasional, accidental, or habitual," he told the New York Times earlier that year. That October, President Roosevelt summoned college coaches to the White House in order to discuss football's problems, and how to fix them.
Roosevelt remained committed to football, though, and especially to his alma mater's team. By mid-November, Ted was asking his parents to come home from college for a visit. Theodore urged his son against it, because the Harvard freshmen soon faced archrival Yale. "Of course we would be overjoyed to see you, but I don't want you to leave if it is going to interfere with your football," the president wrote. "You must not lose the chance of getting into the Yale game."
Ted obeyed and suited up. His parents couldn't attend, and Edith was shocked by postgame reports of her son's thrashing. "Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., was so repeatedly pounded by the heavier Yale freshmen in their game against the Harvard youngsters this afternoon that he was taken out in the second half and carried off the field," reported the Times. In Washington, the Post offered a graphic account under the headline "THEODORE HURT IN GAME: President's Son Carried from the Field Unable to Stir":
When he was in the play, young Roosevelt put up a plucky game. He tackled low and hard, and although light, he got into every play fiercely. When the Yale giants began finally to wear him out he did not show the least signs of quitting, but fought it out gamely until he was fairly staggering with exhaustion.
He made some fearless tackling, but after he got groggy, Yale sent play after play at him.
Once he was knocked out and lay on the ground for some time, but persisted in remaining in the game. Finally a play came around his end that proved too much for the 145-pound boy. When the whistle blew and the men were pulled off the heap, there, underneath everyone else, lay young Roosevelt, cut, bruised, and bleeding, unable to stir. This time he did not protest, but allowed himself to be carried to the locker building, where he was patched up under the doctor's care.
Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. after breaking his ankle during a Harvard football game. Photo by Library of Congress
Reading the account at the White House, Edith and her daughter Ethel reacted angrily. The President, meanwhile, immediately dictated a letter: "Dear Ted: Good for you! Of course I am sorry that Yale beat us, but I am very glad you made the team and I am not merely glad but very proud that you should have played as you evidently did play in the game. ... Mother especially was inclined to take a very dark view of the conduct of the Yale team in playing at you."
Ted looked worse for the wear: he had fractued his nose again, this time requiring surgery, and had a black eye and a neck injury. Given the "groggy" behaviour described in the Post, not to mention his being knocked unconscious twice, he also likely suffered brain trauma. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the president penned a P.S. on his letter: "I am mighty glad you played football this year and ... that this will really be your last year hard at it."
Days after the Yale game, Roosevelt doubled down on football reform, issuing his own recommendations for through Dr. J. William White, a University of Pennsylvania football booster and professor of surgery. T.R's instructions included stricter enforcement of "fair play" by referees, elimination of overt brutality like "slugging," and establishment of uniform national rules for the sport. Subsequently, an upstart group for football reform enjoined with the standing rules committee to form would later become known as the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Secondary schools were urged to follow the NCAA's lead.
Anti-football fervor began to subside; ultimately, Roosevelt would go down in history as the president who "saved" the game. Of course, the new rules didn't actually solve many of football' inherent health and safety issues, and even Roosevelt would later state that the game remained "homicidal." Nevertheless, he continued promoting the game for boys under muscular moralists like Peabody, and his ambiguity was subsequently forgotten as football slowly became America's favorite sport.
As for Ted? Four days after being knocked out, Roosevelt's son tried to lay low and avoid the press patrolling around campus. One journalist found him. Observing the young footballer's smashed nose, bloodied eye and wrenched neck, the reporter asked Ted "if he agreed with his father that the game ought to be made easier."
"I don't wish to be in the newspapers," he replied. "I've been there altogether too much already."