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HomeNews100 Years Ago/HistoryWidespread Deaths in Football Almost Killed the Sport in 1908

Widespread Deaths in Football Almost Killed the Sport in 1908

By Phil Devlin

(September 8, 2022) — Player’s health issues are more often at the center of football debates these days as a new football season is on our doorstep.  Andrew Luck, star quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts, for example, retired recently at the age of just 29 due to the recurring severe injuries that he has suffered in his young career.

Recent studies and anecdotal evidence have pointed to the severe long-term effects that violent collisions on a football field can have on the health of players. More than 2,000 former players joined in a class action lawsuit against the NFL, claiming that the league has downplayed and covered up the dangers of playing football. Those injured players will receive more than $660,000,000 in compensation.

The concern about gridiron violence and its effects on health is not new; in fact, in the fall of 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt, concerned about public outrage centering upon the 19 deaths in collegiate football that fall, called together the presidents of Yale, Harvard and Princeton to find ways to reduce the violence of the game. The public was so outraged at the number of gridiron deaths and catastrophic injuries that year that many called for the complete abolition of football in America

As reported by Neil Hogan in a recent article in the Connecticut Irish-American Historical Society journal, the Gaelic Athletic Association of Connecticut had a solution to President Roosevelt’s concerns about football violence.

At their annual conference in 1909, delegates from eight Connecticut towns and cities — New Haven, Meriden, New Britain, New London, Hartford, Bridgeport, Ansonia and Wallingford — proposed that Gaelic football replace American football in American schools. The association’s president, Walter Crawford, Jr., was quoted in the New Haven Journal- Courier as saying, “The game is not half as rough as the American game of football.” Crawford’s group proposed touring the state to demonstrate his point, but the proposal flopped.

What did work to save American football, however, was the formation of the National Collegiate Athletic Association in 1910. The NCAA quickly adopted rules to help reduce violence on the football field, such as requiring pads and helmets.

Nevertheless, injuries and deaths from football, though reduced, continued to plague the game. For example, the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research has reported that between the years 1931-2006, there were 1,006 direct and 683 indirect deaths in America from playing football at all levels, from sandlot to the pros — more than 20 per year on average.

In addition, a 2000 University of North Carolina study showed that between the years 1977 and 1998, “200 football players received a permanent cervical cord injury, and 66 sustained a permanent cerebral injury.” Furthermore, it is estimated that among high school football players alone, between 40,000 and 60,000 concussions occur annually. In addition, many former NFL players suffer from early-onset dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease.

As reported recently on Bryant Gumbel’s HBO show, “Real Sports,” recent studies report a link between frequent concussions and the onset of the dreaded disease ALS — commonly called “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.” (We should keep in mind that Lou Gehrig himself was a star football player at Columbia University prior to playing major league baseball and had probably suffered many concussions from football.)

As dangerous as playing football may be to your health, there is no sporting activity more dangerous or deadly than cycling. In 2010 alone, 618 Americans died while biking–most commonly as a result of a collision with a motor vehicle. Nearly 90 percent of these victims were male. Furthermore, over 1,000 Americans per week are injured while riding a bicycle. These stats are down from a high of 830 deaths from biking in 1995; that’s more than 60 deaths per month.

For a comprehensive review of the most dangerous sports both on the high school and collegiate levels, clink on this link: Some of the other dangerous sports besides football—such as cheerleading– may surprise you.


Photo is of Jim Thorpe in a Canton Bulldogs uniform sometime between 1915-1920



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