Teddy Roosevelt Nearly Killed American Rugby


Around the world, rugby seasons are kicking off in March. So, each week in March, I’m writing about rugby — the hooligans’ game played by gentlemen (and women). 

Previous articles are here:

America Broke Up With Rugby. We Need That Old Thang Back. 

Everything You Need to Know About Rugby

Chances are, if you’re American, you don’t know much about rugby. That’s a shame. American football and rugby have similar origins. American football essentially evolved from rugby. In fact, they were so close in the early 1900s that the United States managed to win Olympic gold twice. So, how did American football end up so much different from rugby? In a word, politics. 

American Rugby in the 1800s

In 1874, Harvard and McGill University held the first sanctioned US rugby match. Prior to that, colleges were playing unofficial rugby and rugby-style games. These rugby-style games were differentiated from soccer in that they were games in which the ball could be carried. In the 1800s, every college would have its own rulebook for the game. So, before the game, they would agree on a set of rules. They were all different but common threads bound them all: you can run with the ball, the other team can tackle you, and you can pass the ball backwards to a teammate. Most other factors, such as number of teammates, varied. 

American football eventually began to grow out of these rules. In 1880, a player at Yale named Walter Camp successfully argued for limiting the number of players to 11 per team and replacing the scrum with the snap. However, since the snap was uncontested, teams essentially never lost possession. Two years later, Camp introduced the concept of downs. The original set of rules gave each team three downs to advance five yards for a first down. That was essentially the birth of American football. Rugby continued to be the preferred sport at most colleges, though. 

Furthermore, the codes of rugby and American football were so similar, a football team could easily switch to playing rugby for a few matches. 

The 1900s: The Birth of Rugby and the Not-Quite-Death of Rugby

In 1905, 19 players died while playing American football. Newspapers across the country hammered the idea that football was an overly dangerous sport. President Teddy Roosevelt even threatened to ban the game if the dangers weren’t addressed. If he had, American football would probably be called “The Yale Game” in a fairly short Wikipedia article. America would be a rugby powerhouse, and we would be painting our nacho-filled bellies for every Rugby World Cup. 

Teddy Roosevelt, enemy of American Rugby.
Teddy Roosevelt, enemy of American Rugby.

Alas, that did not occur. In 1906, 62 colleges gathered in New York City to form what would eventually become the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and save the game from President Roosevelt. They took measures to spread out the players so as to prevent the murderous maul that occured around the ball. They lengthened the first down from five yards to ten, added a neutral zone at the line of scrimmage, and shortened the time of play. Most importantly, they introduced the forward pass (in rugby, you can only pass laterally or backwards). All of these were designed to get players to spread out and move around more, instead of killing each other in a massive pile-up. 

The first passes were probably something like basketball chest passes. However, former Princeton Player Bosey Reiter revolutionzed the game with his overhead spiral pass. With the new innovation, passes could fly down the field. This new game with these new NCAA rules was spread out, full of exciting passes and, importantly, easy to follow with frequent stoppages and resets. 

This meant that a football team had a distinctly different set of skills and tactics from a rugby team. Gone were the days of rulebook-switching between rugby and football. They were two distinct games now, and colleges needed to choose. Most chose the American game.

The game quickly replaced rugby at colleges and universities. Professional football followed soon, culminating in the National Football League (NFL) beginning play in 1920. American football took off, and rugby languished as a weird sport for Ivy Leaguers. 

Rugby has experienced a resurgence in the past few years. Major League Rugby teams are spread throughout the United States, the National Rugby Football League will begin play in the next few years, and USA national teams consistently kick ass on the world stage. 

That is the very abridged story of how Teddy Roosevelt birthed American football and nearly killed American rugby. In America, everything always seems to come back to politics.