Mark Twain observed, "It is not worthwhile to try to keep history from repeating itself, for man's character will always make the preventing of the repetitions impossible." Presently, the American version of football is facing dangerous and difficult times. From junior football to the National Football League, the epidemic of concussions is causing concern to players, owners, families and anyone involved in the game. Recently, a special meeting of the NFL head, neck and spinal injury committee was held in New York. An industrial designer showed off a prototype of a new helmet called the Gladiator, whose primary selling point is that it has a soft exterior. This year's version of John Madden's video game will include provisions that any player suffering a concussion must be sidelined for the rest of the game, and the announcers will explain the seriousness of head injuries. Art will imitate life rather than life imitating art.
Those familiar with the history of football know that its physical danger has long been recognized and accepted. Coaches, players and fans rationalize even the most debilitating injuries as simply part of the game. Its physically violent and dangerous nature is, in fact, fundamental, but almost led to the death of football in its infancy. At the turn of the 19th century, as colleges began adopting football, many players were badly injured and deaths were commonplace. American progressives called for the sport's abolition.
Against the present concussion debate, THE BIG SCRUM is a book that merits consideration by proponents as well as opponents of the game that is now arguably America's favorite pastime. John J. Miller reveals important details about how President Teddy Roosevelt, a true believer in physical activity and competitive sports, intervened in the debate to support college football. Along the way, Miller offers insight into important aspects of the present-day debate; as it intensifies, the lessons of history become important for all sides.
Miller sets the stage for Roosevelt's intervention with a brief history of the evolution of college football. It began as a mix of rugby and soccer, and during its infancy, it was certainly not recognizable to those who follow the modern game. As it was taking root at various colleges across the land, Roosevelt overcame a childhood of illnesses and fragility by following the doctrine of the strenuous life. In his political leanings, he supported a progressive political platform. When the time came to mediate the quarrel regarding football, Roosevelt, with a presence in both camps, was the man for the job.
But he did not work alone. Walter C. Camp, a player and coach, was an ally of the President, and THE BIG SCRUM documents his importance in the eventual "football summit." His contribution is clear; even today, he is considered one of the founding fathers of American football. The battle lines between abolitionists and supporters were drawn. Charles Eliot, President of Harvard, and E.L. Godkin, editor of The Nation, led the forces seeking the elimination of the game. In addition to the documented physical harm, opponents suggested it encouraged cheating and bad sportsmanship. Perhaps the most important message Miller sends is how little change has occurred in the past 100 years.
Roosevelt's intervention brought about equipment and rule changes as well as an increased emphasis on sportsmanship. Miller's eerily prescient book might be a call for another Teddy Roosevelt, a leader who can bring together the forces of contemporary football to discuss some major concerns. Who knows? Maybe a modern summit can produce a true college football championship playoff, along with a safer game.
Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on April 18, 2011