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Terence Jeffrey / November 27, 2019

The British Effort to Kill American Football

“That the conduct of England with regard to America has been altogether unjustifiable.”

“That the conduct of England with regard to America has been altogether unjustifiable.”

This was the resolution the Debating Society at Marlborough College — the British prep school later attended by the current Duchess of Cambridge — took up on Oct. 23, 1865. Edward H. Moeran argued against the proposition and won — with 18 judges voting for him and only 8 voting against.

Fortunately, he was not as persuasive when he later tried to terminate American football.

Moeran, born in Ireland, captained the rugby and cricket teams at Marlborough and then attended Trinity College Dublin. In 1870, he moved to the United States.

He was admitted to the bar and practiced law in New York.

In 1882, he worked with a group of British expatriates to launch a crusade against the type of football then played at Harvard, Yale and Princeton.

Their proximate inspiration was the 1881 Princeton-Yale game.

That game — perhaps the most tedious in the history of college football — was a product of Princeton’s three-year strategy to maintain what its partisans considered a plausible claim to the college football championship.

The earliest intercollegiate American football games including the two Princeton-Rutgers games of 1869 were more like soccer than the game Americans know today.

Then, in 1876, players from Yale, Columbia and Princeton agreed to make their game more like rugby — which Harvard had already started playing. “The British Rugby Union code of rules was adopted with a few exceptions,” wrote Alexander Weyand in “The Saga of American Football.”

Over the next five years, as this column has chronicled before, these colleges used the rugby-style rules and then evolved away from them.

In 1878, Princeton beat Yale and won the championship. In 1879, Princeton and Yale played to a scoreless tie and Princeton was declared champion — “on the peculiar grounds,” Weyand wrote, “that Princeton had not been beaten and so retained the title won the previous year.”

“British Rugby rules prevailed for the last time in 1879,” he wrote.

Prior to the 1880 season, the players held another rules convention. Walter Camp of Yale successfully proposed letting one team take possession of the ball and run what were essentially the first discrete football plays by snapping the ball back from a scrimmage line.

But there was no limit to how long a team could keep the ball.

In 1880 and 1881, Princeton again played Yale to scoreless ties, with Princeton taking legalistic advantage of loopholes in the evolving rules.

In the 1881 contest — known as “the block game” — Princeton held the ball for most of the first 45-minute period, and Yale held it for all of the second.

“(N)early everyone,” said a history of Princeton athletics published in 1901, “was surprised to discover that the new rules that were to accomplish so much to prevent a tie, made the very game that should have been the finest of the season, a farce, a continuous tussle, and an utterly uninteresting display of slow, common-place play.”

More rule changes were needed — and Edward Moeran thought he knew what they should be.

“A number of British foot-ball players witnessed the game in this city last Thanksgiving Day between the Yale and Princeton teams, which was declared a draw, and found what they considered serious objections to the game as played by Americans,” reported The New York Times.

“They at once organized a club with the name of the British Foot-ball Club, and adopted the Rugby rules, which they regarded as the only proper ones,” said The Times.

Moeran was a leader of this club.

“Pursuant to an invitation of the British Football Club delegates from the football clubs of Harvard, Yale and Princeton joined the members of the club in conference last evening at a meeting at Delmonico’s, Mr. E.H. Moeran, vice president of the St. George’s Cricket Club, in the chair,” reported the New York Herald on April 9, 1882.

“The object of the meeting,” said the Herald, “was to discuss the Rugby Union rules, with a view to a mutual agreement as to a uniform code of rules for the ensuing football season.”

“Mr. Moeran, who presided,” reported The Times, “said that he had only seen two games in this country, and if those were a sample of the way in which the games were to be played it would be better to crush foot-ball in its infancy.”

“He asked the Americans to adopt the Rugby rules,” said The Times, “but the Americans, speaking from practical experience, disagreed with him.”

Representatives from the Harvard, Yale, Columbia and Princeton teams then had another meeting in New York.

“This was called to consider amendments to the rules, and particularly to see if the ‘block game’ could not be done away with,” the New York Tribune reported on May 1, 1882.

“A proposition to adopt the English Rugby rules was unanimously rejected,” the Tribune said.

This rule was accepted: “If in three consecutive runs and downs a team shall not have advanced the ball five yards, or lost ten, they must give it up to the opposite side at the spot where the fourth down is made.”

It was then — 137 years ago — that the uniquely American game of football was born.

Our game may have descended from the British game of rugby, but it declared its independence in 1882.


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