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Terence Jeffrey / Sep. 28, 2017

Amateur Football Is Better Than Professional

From the earliest days of American football, there was a fear that professionalization could ruin the game.

From the earliest days of American football, there was a fear that professionalization could ruin the game.

In 1882, shortly after the founding fathers of this sport — all of whom were students — negotiated the most significant rule changes in the history of the game, the New York Daily Tribune ran contrasting stories reflecting on its emerging popularity.

The first — announcing the fall schedule of games between Harvard, Yale, Columbia and Princeton — began on a sarcastic note.

“The game of football is exciting a livelier interest this year than ever before, and the indications thus far point to more interesting contests, better playing and a brighter prospect that football teams will come out at the end of the season with more broken arms, shattered limbs and bunged eyes than in years past,” the New York Tribune said on page two of its Oct. 23, 1882 edition.

“The interest in the game is largely confined to the colleges,” this story said — with an apparent sigh of relief.

“Almost every institution of learning that has a campus or a backyard large enough to toss pennies in can boast of a football team,” it said. “Next to the ambition to be a scholar is the student’s desire to bend an oar, swing a bat, or punt a football.

"The first two of these important branches of a college curriculum having received sufficient attention during the spring term,” the story continued, “the exercises of the fall term consist mainly in football, oatmeal eating, chapel exercises and Latin — mentioned, of course, in the order of their importance.”

It is telling that in 1882 this newspaper simply assumed that at the colleges playing football in that era the other main exercises of the students included attending chapel and studying Latin.

Two pages later, beneath a masthead boasting that the paper had been founded by Horace Greeley (a leading opponent of slavery in the years leading up to and into the Civil War), the Tribune took an unambiguous position in favor of football.

“This sport is one that ought to be encouraged,” the paper said. “There are no professional teams, and thus the students have one amusement in which they can indulge that does not bring them in contact with influences that they ought to be kept from if possible.”

The next editorial on the page sounded as if it could have been written in 2017. It was headlined: “Leaders Wanted.” It started: “The Republican Party has too many bosses. What it most needs is a leader.”

Two years before that, in 1880, the Intercollegiate Football Association (a group of students from Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Columbia), abandoned Rugby-style “scrummages” and codified the football “scrimmage.” This allowed one team to retain possession of the ball and run individual plays, which commenced by snapping the ball (by foot) from a center to a quarterback.

Unfortunately, the association initially put no limit on the number of plays a team could run and retain the ball. Princeton exploited this oversight to filibuster with the football in its 1881 game with Yale.

That led to the great rule change of 1882: A team would need to gain five yards in three plays or give up the ball. Later, of course, this was changed to 10 yards in four plays.

American football, thus, became a radically unique game — that its founders rightly believed would instill in the men who played it virtues that would serve them and their country well.

In 1894, Walter Camp of Yale, the most significant force in the IFA meetings that made the great rule changes of the 1880s, wrote a book explaining the game he had helped create and the sort of men it sought to form.

“It has been claimed that football lays undue emphasis on physical prowess,” Camp wrote, “yet the benefit to the player from a physical standpoint will be found to be inferior to the benefits from a moral and mental standpoint.”

Camp was unabashed in his belief that football would and should create role models. “The test of an institution is the men that it produces,” he said, “and football will splendidly abide that test.”

Nor did he lament the lack of a professional league. In an 1896 book co-written with Lorin Deland, a Harvard coach, he wrote: “It is similarly no drawback to (the game’s) popularity that professional football is unknown in America.”

NFL players who disrespect the national anthem by sitting or kneeling while it is performed betray a fundamental purpose of the game. They are not great role models. They are the opposite.

Team owners and coaches who coax other players into showing solidarity with the anthem-kneelers (by, for example, hiding in a tunnel) are abusing this great American game to teach young men a wrong. They are saying to their players: You must surrender some of your patriotism to show solidarity with our team.

Real football fans have an option: There will be more good high school and college games this weekend than the NFL will play all season.

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