Bloody Monday to Walter Camp: The Standardization of American Football


Imagine your school is traveling to Athens to play the University of Georgia in football. Here’s the catch: you have to play by Georgia’s rules. In the early days of college football, each school developed its own rules–in intercollegiate contests, the home team’s rules prevailed. The early days of college football were a time of trial and error. Different schools played different versions of the game. Some versions looked more like soccer, others like rugby, and others were a combination of many influences.

During the 1820s, several colleges in the northeast played their own version of college football. Each had its own set of rules and played only intramural games. For example, Princeton played a game called “ballown” as early as 1820. Harvard began its own version in 1827 with a game between the freshmen and sophomore classes affectionately known as “Bloody Monday,” while Dartmouth played something called “Old Division Football.” These disparate games had some basic features in common: large numbers of players trying to advance a ball into a goal by any means necessary, violence, and frequent injury. Because of the injury issue, these schools abolished their brand of football by the beginning of the Civil War, although the game continued in some form at various east coast prep schools.

By the late 1860s, football had returned to colleges in the northeast. On November 6, 1869, Rutgers and Princeton played the first intercollegiate football game. The schools played with a round ball under Rutgers’ rules.  One score equaled one point. The game appeared more similar to rugby and soccer than to the American football of today.  Each side played with 25 players with the objective of kicking a ball into the opposing team’s goal. Players were not allowed to throw or carry the ball, and physical contact was part of the game. Rutgers defeated the visitors from Princeton 6-4. A week later the two schools played at Princeton under Princeton’s rules. The rules of the two schools were similar with the notable exception that a player who caught a ball on the fly was awarded a free-kick. Princeton scored a measure of revenge with an 8-0 victory.

As more colleges began playing football, school officials quickly saw the need for standardized rules. On October 20, 1873, representatives from Yale, Columbia, Princeton, and Rutgers met in New York to develop a set of regulations based more on soccer than rugby. Harvard boycotted the meeting because it insisted on playing by its own regulations known as the “Boston game” – a version predicated more on carrying the ball than on kicking it. Harvard found itself without competition until Tufts College, located outside of Boston, agreed to play Harvard June 4, 1875.  Tufts won a passionate game 1-0.

In 1876, Yale, Harvard, Princeton, and Columbia met in New York to try once more to standardize the rules. This time the schools agreed on a new code of regulations based largely on the Rugby Football Union’s code from England. Under the new rules, a two-point touchdown replaced the kicked goal as the primary means of scoring.

It wasn’t until 1880 that college football began to resemble the game as it is played today. Walter Camp was a college football player (Yale), coach (Yale and Stanford), and sportswriter. As Yale coach, his 1888, 1891, and 1892 teams won recognition as national champions. Camp also took part in the various intercollegiate rules committees beginning as a player in 1880 until his death in 1925. Because of his role on the rules committees, Camp became known as the “Father of American football.” Camp spearheaded the change to today’s game. At yet another New York meeting, Camp convinced representatives of Yale, Harvard, Princeton, and Columbia to approve a reduction from 15 to 11 players per side, the establishment of a line of scrimmage, and the snap of the ball between the center and the quarterback. Football became more of an open game emphasizing speed.

At later meetings, Camp helped persuade the schools that a team had to gain five yards within three downs or lose possession; that the field should be reduced in size to its modern dimensions of 120 yards by 53.3 yards; and that four points should be awarded for a touchdown, two points for kicks made after touchdowns, two points for safeties, and five for field goals. (The scoring structure has since been changed to six points for touchdowns, one for the kick after a touchdown, and three for a successful field goal.) Camp was also responsible for having two paid officials referee every game and legalizing tackling below the waist.

College football owes much to pioneers of the game like Walter Camp. Without standardization of the rules, the mixed bag of a game that evolved into what we now call football would likely not have survived.

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.