How T.R. saved football

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Teddy Roosevelt is often remembered for his progressive activist politics, but he was also an avid supporter – some might say savior – of the sport of football.

In his book, “The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football,” John J. Miller documents Roosevelt’s role in transforming football from a controversial, injury-ridden rugby spin-off blood sport to the relatively safer, distinctly American sport we know today.

Roosevelt, who grew up a sickly child, associated athletics with fitness and conquering his illness, believed all Americans — especially American boys — should engage in sports. “He thought rough sports were a positive social good because they taught all kinds of lessons about life that you can’t learn from a book, from a classroom,” Miller said during a recent interview.

(Listen to my full conversation with John J. Miller here.)

While Roosevelt was attending Harvard University, he attended the second Harvard-Yale game ever played and was captivated by the sport. But later, he also recognized a downfall of football: its violence and brutality. So, Roosevelt hosted a 1905 summit at the White House with coaches from the then-football powerhouses Harvard, Yale and Princeton to reform the game. As a result, they changed the rules to incorporate the forward pass.

Roosevelt was able to save football from prohibition in its formative and oft-criticized early years – but is there hope for today’s football, plagued with helmet controversies and pay discrepancies? “With the NFL lockout today, I think a lot of people might agree that football could use a Teddy Roosevelt,” Miller said.

But Roosevelt was a progressive in more ways than just football reforms. “The Roosevelt political legacy, I think, is complicated and is controversial,” Miller said. “He’s one of the most fascinating men ever to occupy the White House.”

Conservatives love Roosevelt’s defense of “the strenuous life” and his patriotism, he added.

“He’s always praising manliness,” he said. “As a conservative, there’s a lot to like.”

Listen to my full conversation with John J. Miller here. Or download the podcast on iTunes.

Matt K. Lewis