In Brief, Football: The History, The Violence, The Grace/Beauty

1rst-intercollef-football-1876-Yale-Vs-PrincetonBernadette Keefe M.D.

Introduction -The Passion, The Inquiry

The Golden Game, the game that decides the 2016 National Football League (NFL) champion, will be played in Santa Clara, California, on Sunday February 7, before a stadium audience of 68,000 and a U.S. television audience likely surpassing 110 million (private TV sets).

Football is immensely popular in the United States. For many, it is a favorite past time and, is often dubbed America’s sport. Football is also big business, with tentacles reaching into two massive empires: media, through TV networks such as ESPN, and gambling, from Las Vegas back rooms to online Fantasy Football websites such as FanDuel and Draftkings.

Notably, football is a particularly violent game, one in which brute strength is as important as skill. The over-riding mission is to destroy/nullify opposing players who stand in the way of ball possession and goals. Injury is common in the sport, and can be severe.

As a Carolina Panthers fan, but also a physician, the violence in football has always been unnerving. For me, the sport’s allure is in the many graceful, athletic moves, especially the leaping, and reaching. For many others, however, it’s the cold, hard violence that thrills. As a prelude to my larger post on football, to be released later this weekend, I wanted to delve into the roots of the sport, and ask: Was football always so violent?

The History


Yale vs Columbia Collegiate Football

Excerpt: American Football –by Bruce K. Stewart American History November 1995

“The origins of the sport that captivates U.S. fans each fall goes back hundreds of years, but the American version has its roots in the ivy league schools of the late 1800s.

More than 125 years ago, the sons of Civil War veterans fought on a new field of combat. Yankees, Rebels, and Westerners alike–assailed at every step by their opponents– openly attacked each other, each man fervently battling for a few extra yards of precious turf. Some men died, while many more were seriously injured in the crude charges, brawling, and bucking that each man contended was his privilege as a gentleman. The fierce game of football had taken root.

Although football had been played in one form or another for centuries, the American version of the sport originated, for the most part, in Northeastern high schools and matured during the late nineteenth century in the Ivy League universities of the Northeast. As early as the 1840s, intramural matches had assumed a significant place in the campus life of students at Harvard and Yale University. Rivalries between classes became so intense that, by the beginning of the Civil War, the game had to be outlawed by the administrations of both institutions.

During the war years, a young man named Gerritt Smith Miller, who had played football while a high-school student in upstate New York, organized the Oneida Football Club in Boston, Massachusetts. He was the first to introduce the concept of teamwork to the game. Up to this time, players functioned individually on the field, with little regard to what their teammates were doing. Miller’s “Boston game” assigned each player a role in advancing the ball or defending the goal.

Princeton and Rutgers played the first intercollegiate football game in 1869, with Yale, Cornell, and Columbia following soon after. Most closely resembling soccer (ball carrying was not yet considered an option), the earliest games were melees in which roughly 25 men blocked, tackled, and fought to kick a round, leather-covered ball through a wooden crossbar. “

In 1869, after a Harvard – Yale agreement, a game marrying the soccer rules with rugby rules was played (adding ball carrying with kicking) and American football was born.

The Violence

Violence has been central to sports throughout history, from chariot racing and gladiatorial games, to the Mesoamerican games, to our modern day contests. The venues may have been different but the ritual, brutality, and passion are remarkably similar.



Coliseum in Rome 60-80 CE

Ball-court of Monte-Alban (150-650 CE)

The Classic Period ball court of Monte Alban (150-650 CE), where Mesoamerican games were played.


Levi Stadium – Santa Clara, California, American Football-site of Super Bowl 50


Violence has been central to the game of football since its earliest days, on college campuses, almost two centuries ago. In 1827, early football was dubbed “mob football” and Harvard had an intramural tradition around the game called “Bloody Monday”. The game continued to cause injuries until reaching a zenith in 1905, when 19 deaths occurred in collegiate games, after which, President Theodore Roosevelt held a meeting of college athletic representatives. The intercollegiate regulating body was formed (the future National Collegiate Athletic Association) and rules changed such as, legalizing the forward pass, and making mass formation plays illegal. Other changes to the game were made over the next 5 years.

Despite the recognized violence, both collegiate football, and professional football, have been ‘riding high’ for nearly 70 years, seeing explosive growth, more recently, from widespread television viewing and online media. Information possessed by the NFL, regarding dangers related to the game, was kept hidden from the public. However, following investigations into the suspicious deaths of retired football players, and the related scientific research published, the NFL has been forced to face, head on, the consequences of repetitive brain trauma to its players.

On Christmas Day 2015, Concussion – The Movie, was released, further raising the profile of this serious issue.

The Concussion Movie

“You’re going to war with a corporation that owns the day of the week! “

The film is a dramatic portrayal of the discovery of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). A gifted Nigerian neuropathologist, immune to the American culture of sport veneration, makes the connection between the abnormal findings in the brains of football players he examines after death, and, their history of repeated head trauma and concussions. As a physician, I found the film to be a particularly moving glimpse into the passion of our medical profession. Of course, the film has incredible civic value, through its exploration of the violence and power which envelope America’s favorite sport.

 Concussion Movie Trailer


The Grace/ The Beauty

Despite the prevalence of violence in games such as football, I find much beauty and grace in the athletic maneuvers of the game. Imagine the delight when I discovered this video of Lynn Swann, Pittsburgh Steelers, former WR (1974-1982) who, prior to pro-football, was a young ballet dancer.

Ballet On The Gridiron – Swann Lake

Steve-Mclendon-at barre

Steve McLendon, Pittsburgh Steelers, nose tackle – at the barre


The combination of the balance required to withstand tackle attempts, and, the flexibility and extension to catch on the run, (arms and body fully extended, and, at an angle) is akin to the dramatic moves we appreciate in principal dancers.

Zurich ballet





American football is riveting in its demonstrations of brute strength, and, its graceful beauty. Our responsibility is to minimize the injuries from the former, in order to celebrate the latter!




Please see my follow up post: Sports and Concussions: A Love – Hate Bond 


 The most valuable teams in the NFL

Super Bowl XLIX (2015) post the largest TV audience in history

American Football –by Bruce K. Stewart American History November 1995

The History of American Football

The Lost Century of American Football

Violence in Sports: A Comparison of Gladiatorial Games in Ancient Rome to the Sports of America

A Doherty – Honors Theses, 2001 –

The Ball Game of Mesoamerica by Mark Cartwright

Ancient Mesoamerican Ball Game Origins and Gameplay

Ulama: Mesoamerican Ball Game, the Deadly Sport of Ancient Americas

What Ballet Does For Football

 How Ballet Benefits Football

Ballet on the Gridiron, Swann Lake 

Header Image:  The 1930 Currier & Ives Print depicting the iconic Thanksgiving Day Football Game between Yale and Princeton – 1876







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