[FoRK] Alan Kay Interview

Gregory Alan Bolcer greg at bolcer.org
Sun Nov 18 10:11:55 PST 2012

Competition with common sense restraints.


At the turn of the 20th century, America’s football gridirons were 
killing fields. The college game drew tens of thousands of spectators 
and rivaled professional baseball in fan appeal, but football in the 
early 1900s was lethally brutal. Football was a grinding, bruising sport 
in which the forward pass was illegal and brute strength was required to 
move the ball. Players locked arms in mass formations and used their 
helmetless heads as battering rams. Gang tackles routinely buried ball 
carriers underneath a ton and a half of tangled humanity.

With little protective equipment, players sustained gruesome 
injuries—wrenched spinal cords, crushed skulls and broken ribs that 
pierced their hearts. The Chicago Tribune reported that in 1904 alone, 
there were 18 football deaths and 159 serious injuries, mostly among 
prep school players. Obituaries of young pigskin players ran on a nearly 
weekly basis during the football season. The carnage appalled America. 
Newspaper editorials called on colleges and high schools to banish 
football outright. “The once athletic sport has degenerated into a 
contest that for brutality is little better than the gladiatorial 
combats in the arena in ancient Rome,” opined the Beaumont Express. The 
sport reached such a crisis that one of its biggest boosters—President 
Theodore Roosevelt—got involved.

Although his nearsightedness kept him off the Harvard varsity squad, 
Roosevelt was a vocal exponent of football’s contribution to the 
“strenuous life,” both on and off the field. As New York City police 
commissioner, he helped revive the annual Harvard-Yale football series 
after it had been canceled for two years following the violent 1894 
clash that was deemed “the bloodbath at Hampden Park.” His belief that 
the football field was a proving ground for the battlefield was 
validated by the performance of his fellow Rough Riders who were former 
football standouts. “In life, as in a football game,” he wrote, “the 
principle to follow is: Hit the line hard; don’t foul and don’t shirk, 
but hit the line hard!” In 1903, the president told an audience, “I 
believe in rough games and in rough, manly sports. I do not feel any 
particular sympathy for the person who gets battered about a good deal 
so long as it is not fatal.”

Football, however, was fatal, and even Roosevelt acknowledged it 
required reform if it was to be saved. With his son Theodore Jr. now 
playing for the Harvard freshman team, he had a paternal interest in 
reforming the game as well. Fresh from negotiating an end to the 
Russo-Japanese War, Roosevelt sought to end violence on the football 
field as well as the battlefield. Using his “big stick,” the First Fan 
summoned the head coaches and representatives of the premier collegiate 
powers—Harvard, Yale and Princeton—to the White House on October 9, 
1905. Roosevelt urged them to curb excessive violence and set an example 
of fair play for the rest of the country. The schools released a 
statement condemning brutality and pledging to keep the game clean.

Roosevelt soon discovered that brokering peace in the Far East may have 
been an easier proposition than getting an American sport to clean up 
its act. Fatalities and injuries mounted during the 1905 season. In the 
freshman tilt against Yale, the president’s son was bruised and his nose 
broken—deliberately, according to some accounts. The following week, the 
Harvard varsity nearly walked off the field while playing against Yale 
after their captain was leveled by an illegal hit on a fair catch that 
left his nose broken and bloodied. The same afternoon, Union College 
halfback Harold Moore died of a cerebral hemorrhage after being kicked 
in the head while attempting to tackle a New York University runner. It 
was a grim end to a savage season. In what the Chicago Tribune referred 
to as a “death harvest,” the 1905 football season resulted in 19 player 
deaths and 137 serious injuries. A Cincinnati Commercial Tribune cartoon 
depicted the Grim Reaper on a goalpost surveying a twisted mass of 
fallen players.

A football game in 1902. (Library of Congress)

Following the season, Stanford and California switched to rugby while 
Columbia, Northwestern and Duke dropped football. Harvard president 
Charles Eliot, who considered football “more brutalizing than 
prizefighting, cockfighting or bullfighting,” warned that Harvard could 
be next, a move that would be a crushing blow to the college game and 
the Harvard alum in the Oval Office. Roosevelt wrote in a letter to a 
friend that he would not let Eliot “emasculate football,” and that he 
hoped to “minimize the danger” without football having to be played “on 
too ladylike a basis.” Roosevelt again used his bully pulpit. He urged 
the Harvard coach and other leading football authorities to push for 
radical rule changes, and he invited other school leaders to the White 
House in the offseason.

An intercollegiate conference, which would become the forerunner of the 
NCAA, approved radical rule changes for the 1906 season. They legalized 
the forward pass, abolished the dangerous mass formations, created a 
neutral zone between offense and defense and doubled the first-down 
distance to 10 yards, to be gained in three downs. The rule changes 
didn’t eliminate football’s dangers, but fatalities declined—to 11 per 
year in both 1906 and 1907—while injuries fell sharply. A spike in 
fatalities in 1909 led to another round of reforms that further eased 
restrictions on the forward pass and formed the foundation of the modern 

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