Football Safety: Theodore Roosevelt and the Forward Pass

With the release of the movie “Concussion”, American football is dealing with some difficult issues. The long-term harm to players, caused by repeated head trauma, can no longer be denied or downplayed.

Many professional players now say they do not want their kids to play and some say they would forbid it. While the sport is wildly popular, a growing number of Americans believe that football should be banned at the high school and college levels and some would like to see the NFL itself shut down.

This is not the first time football has been in serious jeopardy. Over 100 years ago it had become so brutal and deadly that there was a push for a ban. Instead, rules were changed and the game as we know it today began to take shape.

1905: Theodore Roosevelt Saves Football

In 1905, 18 football players were killed. Three were college athletes, and 15 were in high school. Over 150 players were seriously injured on the field. President Theodore Roosevelt loved football and “rough, manly sports,” in general. But his son was playing for Harvard that year. Roosevelt called a meeting with officials from several universities and demanded that the game be changed.

A second, much larger, meeting led to the adoption of new rules and laid the groundwork for what would eventually become the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).

The Forward Pass

The biggest change was legalizing the forward pass. Prior to 1906 it was not allowed. The purpose of making the forward pass legal, as well as several other rule changes, was to spread players out in an effort to minimize severe injuries. Although it took time for the play to catch on, it eventually changed the way that football is played.

Today, football officials at all levels, are trying to make changes to minimize the risk of head injuries. At least one change has to do with the way young people are taught to tackle – not going in head first. Just like the forward pass, this may take time to have a positive effect and it is not certain how much it will reduce head injuries.

For more information on head injuries, download our free Head Injuries Guide, or for more information on football safety, check out our History of Football Safety inforgraphic.

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