Teddy Roosevelt’s Role in the Creation of the NCAA

College football has seen its share of scandals, cheating, and lack of institutional control in the last twenty years. Within the last few years, we’ve witnessed unprecedented sanctions against Penn State, major problems involving Miami, and multiple rules violations at Oklahoma State as reported in Sports Illustrated. It seems as if almost every school has received the dreaded notice from the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s (NCAA) rules enforcement group that an investigation into improprieties is imminent. However, the sport has not only survived but flourished with mega-million dollar television contracts, unprecedented game attendance, and culture, at least in the South, that has developed around football Saturdays. Such is the present state of college football. However, college football came excruciatingly close to being abolished at many universities in the early 1900s. If not for the efforts of President Theodore Roosevelt in 1905, the game would most certainly not have evolved into what it is today.

College football started at many schools in the 1890s. The powers of the time were eastern schools such as Harvard, Yale, Pennsylvania, Columbia, Union, Swarthmore, and Princeton. Football, even then, was a big business. Games produced thousands of dollars for the schools and the alumni and students demanded winning teams. The pressure to win caused some schools to employ such unethical tactics as admitting football players who did not qualify academically, encouraging professors to pass players in their classes in order to keep the players eligible, and inventing classes just for football players. Alumni paid players under the table to come to their alma maters or to remain on their football teams. It was not unusual for athletes to play at a different school every year or change schools in mid-season.

Perhaps the most egregious practice involved the excessive brutality associated with the games. Elite players were targeted by the opposition and intentionally injured. For example, in a game between Princeton and Dartmouth, Princeton’s players intentionally broke the collarbone of Dartmouth’s best player early in the game. Other premeditated acts such as breaking an opponent’s nose were commonplace. In some cases, players died from overly aggressive play. A Union College player died after a play during a game with New York University. Amidst this backdrop of unethical actions and overt brutality, Columbia and Union abolished football and more schools threatened to do the same. Harvard’s president also called for the abolition of the sport. As a football fan and Harvard graduate, Roosevelt decided it was time to intervene. He believed football built character and that physical play was a necessary part of the game. However, Roosevelt did not condone the sport’s brutality and poor sportsmanship.  The President invited representatives from three of the eastern football powers – Harvard, Yale, and Princeton – to meet with him at the White House on October 9, 1905. Roosevelt hoped this group could develop a plan to reform college football.

The group discussed the current state of the game, including examples of unethical behavior and unsportsmanlike play committed by each school. In a recent game between Harvard and Yale, a Harvard player called for a fair catch of a Yale punt. Two Yale defenders intentionally ran into the Harvard player after the fair catch was called. One Yale defender broke the Harvard player’s nose while the other delivered a body blow with his feet knocking the Harvard player unconscious. Roosevelt also referenced the aforementioned Dartmouth-Princeton incident. The school representatives denied any knowledge of their respective school’s indiscretions. However, upon the urging of the President, a representative from each school agreed to draft an agreement that stated that the three institutions would play by the letter and the spirit of the established rules of football.

This agreement among Harvard, Yale, and Princeton did not bring immediate change to the game. Roosevelt had no enforcement powers over the schools, so the White House meeting proved unsuccessful. However, Roosevelt had given legitimacy to the problems of college football by publicly acknowledging serious problems existed.  The momentum for reform led to a meeting of about 60 schools in New York on December 28, 1905. The group created a new rules committee, composed of men from all over the country, to oversee the game. Additionally, the group demanded enforcement of these rules by a capable body of well-trained officials. The Inter-Collegiate Athletic Association became the new organization to enforce the rules. In 1910, the organization changed its name to the National Collegiate Athletic Association or the NCAA.

Roosevelt may not have saved college football but he surely fanned the flames for reform that eventually led to the establishment of the NCAA. It is debatable how effective the NCAA has been over the ensuing years, but that is a topic for another time.