Cumberland - Chapter 3: Cancellation of Football

Football incorporates the two worst elements of American society: Violence punctuated by committee meetings.
- George F. Will, American writer 

     The appointment of George “Fullback” Allen to the position of student manager of the football team at Cumberland had occurred at a time when Dr. Samuel Andrew Coile served as president. Intercollegiate athletics had garnered an enormous increase in popularity since the beginning of the century. Baseball, basketball and field sports were all gaining a following, but none more than football, whose popularity was skyrocketing.

     In spite of Cumberland’s early success on the gridiron, the football program, for reasons mostly financial, struggled to maintain a solid footing at the university, having been cancelled and reinstated a number of times in the years following the school being named Southern champion in 1903. In one of the instances football had been reinstated at Cumberland, the Board of Trustees established a set of conditions that stated all athletics to be under faculty control, all schedules to be made with the approval of the president of the university (same goes for all equipment orders), no debt to be created against the faculty or the University or the Athletic Association and, finally, no away games to be played without the guarantee of expenses being paid by the host team.

     Still, money problems would continue to plague the school. Aside from the law school, the university was continually operating on borrowed money, according to G. Frank Burns in his official account of the school’s history. And when 1916 rolled around, due to delinquent tuition accounts, faculty salaries, and new debts that had been incurred, it was determined Cumberland would inevitably end the school year with a deficit in the range of three to four thousand dollars. This may not seem like a lot of money now, but it was then. A deficit of three or four thousand dollars would be extremely difficult for a small southern college like Cumberland to overcome in those days. But deficits were not going to be the worst of it.

     The abrupt resignation in the spring by President Coile, due to the financial issues, would leave the school scrambling to find a replacement. Dr. Coile had held the position since 1914. Prior to that, he had served for twenty-six years as an active Pastor for the Presbyterian Church. Even though he had only served as President of Cumberland for two years, he was reported to be generally well respected and well liked. The continuing money woes of the school only complicated the matter.

     A replacement would be found, at least temporarily, in the form of Dr. Homer Allin Hill, a professor of biology at Cumberland, who would be named “acting” President. Regarded as a solid administrator and prudent manager, Dr. Hill would handle day-to-day operations of the school while the board looked to solicit endowments and find a way to resolve the school’s economic troubles. Hill had previously taught science at St. John’s Military Academy. He was also a church elder and Sunday school teacher, as well as member of the Glee Club and church choir.

     Homer Hill was everything George Allen was not. He was stable. Dependable. Not splashy or boastful. If Allen was Dionysian in nature, Hill was most assuredly Apollonian by contrast. Allen was the grasshopper. Hill was the ant. Even though Allen was a student, while Hill was a member of the faculty, the two served together on the school athletic board where there must have been more than a few disagreements. Reportedly Hill had “a distaste for the frivolous nature of intercollegiate athletics” and one of his first cost-cutting acts, as ward over the university budgets, was to disband all athletics, starting with football.

     George Allen would not take this decision lying down. “My youthful spirits were so outraged by this decision,” recalled Allen in his autobiography, “that I determined, if possible, to overrule it.” The cancellation of football at Cumberland University was a travesty of justice by an institution that professed to teach its merits. In the mind of Allen, the decision held no legitimacy. Dr. Hill was not even a real school president. He was the acting president.

     The glorified biology professor was little more than a usurper and carpetbagger, not to mention a few more strongly worded pejoratives he could probably think up if he had to. It was as if all his dreams of newspaper headlines and campus prestige were being flushed down the invention of Sir Thomas Crapper. And it wasn’t as if he hadn’t done his fair share of boasting to classmates, family members and anyone who would listen about his recently acquired position of importance he had been dutifully bestowed with.

     All of this had to bring great pleasure to Dr. Hill. Students like Allen were as much an affront to higher education as the sport of football was. This was a place for learning, not playing games, particularly violent ones. He had little appreciation for Allen’s lackadaisical approach. Allen had as much use for science as a fish had for a bicycle, so his attendances, and attentiveness, in Hill’s classes was lacking.

     This was all for Allen’s own good, mind you. Dr. Hill knew there were no free rides in life and it would do Allen well to learn this difficult fact early on. That way, he doesn’t waste his life attempting to get by on little more than his charming wit and amusing stories. The acting president did not possess either of those traits nor did he admire them in Allen. He wanted nothing more than for George Allen to finish up his time at Cumberland University, with as little incident as possible, and let him ride off into obscurity where he would undoubtedly never be heard from again.

     Allen’s reluctance to not let go on the matter was not simply the behavior of a petulant child who didn’t get his way. Not entirely anyway. He was aware of the progressive movement sweeping the country and saw his opportunity to enact a little social change as well. College was always a venue for speaking up and taking a stand. He felt this was an instance where he had to take one. A college without a football team, he thought, was like a sundae without any fudge. All you have left is a boring old bowl of ice cream.

     He knew the importance of having football at a university. He knew the importance of letting your freak flag fly now and then. School couldn’t be 100% Apollonian. You need to let your Dionysian side come out. There needs to be some tomfoolery to go with all that studying. All students deserve the opportunity to let out some steam by shouting at the top of their lungs over a ball crossing an imaginary line on a field. This was part of the college experience. This was where memories were born. It would be an injustice to future students at Cumberland, Allen believed, to be denied a football team because of a shortsighted and regrettable decision made in haste.

     Without football, a college had no pulse. No vitality. It is just classrooms and textbooks. Without football, there is nothing to make your heart race and your breathing stop. Without football, there would be no juvenile taunts and outlandish predictions. Without football, fall would just be that season that comes before winter. Without football, there would be no legitimate reason to get up on a Saturday. Friedrich Nietzsche said, ‘Without music, life would be a mistake.’ Well, George Allen knew without football, college would be a mistake. His heart ached for future generations being denied the thrill of a Saturday football game. There was nothing better.

     For him, the idea of studying and attending classes and not having that joyous outlet would be unbearable. That’s why they give prisoners yard time. Locked up in their jail cells, they would go nuts if they didn’t get out once in a while. Students would go nuts as well with nothing more than their books and studying. As custodian of the cancelled football program, the responsibility fell on him to correct this travesty of justice. He would do everything in his power to preserve this noble sport at Cumberland. If successful, perhaps Lebanon would one day place a statue of him in the town square near the one of General Robert H. Hatton. The artist would be at liberty to make him taller and handsomer if he were so inclined. Allen would not present a fuss.

     It is reasonable to assume, based on the events which unfolded, that Allen’s attempts to sway the decision of school officials were initially unsuccessful. Whatever legalese he gleaned from classes he bothered to attend must not have been satisfactory, as Dr. Hill and the Board of Directors remained quite undeterred in their decision to phase out the football program.

     Cumberland would not be the only university to take such steps. This was a time when football was still struggling to win over the favor of the American public. A fiery debate was waging over the violent nature of the sport. Many wanted it banned altogether. They pointed to the numbers of young boys killed or suffering debilitating injuries, year after year, while playing the game. Progressive-era prohibitionists launched a movement to end the sport for the good of society. Worse yet, a recent development in the game had taken a violent sport and just made it even more so.

     In 1884, Princeton introduced the “V-trick,” which was the precursor to the game’s most controversial play, the flying wedge. This led to mass play. Players would lock arms, creating walls of human projectiles to run “interference” for the ball carrier. This led to the need for wedge busters on defense and suddenly you had a recipe on the football field for mayhem and tragedy. Each season, there would be reports of young boys, across the country, killed or maimed playing the sport.

     The “killjoy” leading the way to ban American football while the sport was still in its infancy was football’s first critic, Harvard President Charles W. Eliot. A cousin of poet T.S. Eliot, Charles Eliot assumed the presidency of Harvard in 1869, the same year the first American football game was played between Princeton (then the College of New Jersey) and Rutgers. The rules used in the game were based on the London Football Association, which was popular at the time and departed from Rugby rules. The game would end with a 6-4 Rutgers victory.

     Harvard enjoyed a reputation as a leading college, the largest of the country for much of Eliot’s tenure at the helm of the school, which lasted forty years, far longer than any Harvard president before or since. In the years he held the position, Eliot was a fearless crusader for the progressive movement to abolish football and his distaste for the rough play of the game, and most competitive sports was well known.

     In 1905, Eliot wrote in the Journal of Education that the “evils” of football had become seriously injurious to rational academic life. “If a college or university is primarily a place for training men for honorable, generous and efficient service to the community at large,” wrote Eliot, “there ought not to be more than one opinion on the question whether a game, played under the actual conditions of warfare, and with the barbarous ethics of warfare, can be a useful element in the training of young men for such high service.”

     He pointed to the large number of injuries, the game’s deceptive nature and reliance on trickery and the “disproportional exaltation of the football hero in the college world” as reasons for his disapproval. Mostly, he found offense in the way the weaker man is the legitimate prey of the stronger in the game.

     In his book The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football, John J. Miller recounts an incident when President Eliot took exception to a student chant he overheard at the start of a game that called for, “Three cheers for Harvard and down with Yale!” Finding the chant bad mannered and rude to their guests, he proposed a less objectionable alternative, “Three cheers for Harvard and one for Yale!” Whether the students took his advice cannot be confirmed, but Eliot’s efforts as a prohibitionist during his four decades presiding over Harvard did make some progress.

     Despite the game’s popularity with students, alumni and the public, Harvard banned the sport in 1885. This may have also had something to do with the school’s rivalry with Yale, and the fact Harvard had not managed to defeat the Bulldogs in the previous eight years, losing by the embarrassing score of 50-0 the season prior.

     In Creating the Big Game: John W. Heisman and the Invention of American Football, author Wiley L. Umphlett illustrated how futile it had become in Harvard’s attempts to beat Yale: 

     While Harvard won the initial match in this long-standing series (one to grow so venerable over the years that it would be affectionately referred to as The Game), Yale began to dominate the ensuing matches in such impressive fashion during the 1880s and into the 1890s that Crimson fans could just about concede victory to the Blue every time the annual game rolled around. In fact, over a thirty-three-year span, Yale defeated Harvard twenty-nine times.

     Those looking to ban the sport of football turned to the same place they always turn, the media. The headlines in those days were not all that different from the headlines today. The New York Times reported on March 1, 2016 of a unanimous approval of eight Ivy League coaches to ban tackling during football practices out of safety of the players. And on October 28, 2015, a staff writer for the Harvard Crimson made the case to shut down football at Harvard. The author explains why the sport has no place on campus, in which he points to the risk for concussions as well as the potential “ghettoization” of football, a thesis put forward by best-selling author Michael Gladwell where, similar to joining the military, only lower-income students would accept the dangerous risks from playing the game and elect to participate.

     Excessive violence and government bureaucracy had become the two greatest threats to the future of football. America’s new favorite pastime was in grave danger of being abolished. Baseball was a much easier sport to accept for the progressives who wanted change. The game was easier to control. Everything in baseball was orderly and logical. The players did not physically interact with one another. For the most part, there was no physical contact. Football was the exact opposite.

     Football was all about chaos and was highly violent. There was far less structure. Anything can happen at any moment. There were big winners and there were big losers. Just like in capitalism. The progressives didn’t like that, not at all. Individuals like President Eliot at Harvard preferred an environment where everyone could be a winner. He would have been a strong proponent of participation ribbons from today’s society as well as had a similar distaste for bullying we see today. This was what the progressive movement was largely about in those days, eliminating corruption and protecting the common good.

     In the midst of the end-of-the-century backlash, the game of football and its rough style of play would find a staunch supporter in the form of Teddy Roosevelt, who attended Harvard while Eliot was president of the university. In 1895, Roosevelt was already a major figure in politics, when Eliot renewed his efforts to abolish the sport. This recommitment was the result of the Harvard-Yale game the year before known as both the “Hampden Park Blood Bath” and “Springfield Massacre” where players from both teams suffered hospitalizing injuries.

     The progressive era abolitionists did have a point. In the coming years, the voice calling for the abolition of football would grow louder and louder. Headlines reported increasing instances of young boys maimed and killed on the football field leading up to the Chicago Tribune report of the 1905 “Death Harvest” that recorded 19 football deaths and 137 serious injuries. The year prior hadn’t fared much better, with 18 football deaths and 159 serious injuries.

     “The game of football grows worse and worse as regards foul and violent play, and the number and gravity of the injuries which the players suffer,” wrote Eliot in his 1895 annual report. “It has become perfectly clear the game as now played is unfit for college use. The rules of the game are at present such as to inevitably cause broken bones, sprains, and wrenches, even during trial or practice games played legitimately; and they also permit those who play with reckless violence or with shrewd violations of the rules to gain thereby great advantages. What is called the ‘development of the game’ has steadily increased its risks, until they have become unjustifiable. Naturally the public is losing faith in the sincerity of the professed desire of coaches, captains, and promoters to reform it.”

     Following Eliot’s impassioned plea to curtail the violence, Harvard professors voted to ban football although they had no actual authority to do so. The future president of the United States found the attempts by those in academics and the media appalling and stated so, along with his support for football and the importance of athletics, in a letter on March 11, 1895.

     “Of all games, I personally like football the best,” Roosevelt wrote in the letter, “and I would rather see my boys play it than see them play any other. I have no patience with the people who declaim against it because it necessitates rough play and occasional injuries. The rough play, if confined within manly and honorable limits, is an advantage. It is a good thing to have the personal contact about which the New York Evening Post snarls so much, and no fellow is worth his salt if he minds an occasional bruise or cut. Being near-sighted I was not able to play football in college, and I never cared for rowing or baseball, so that I did all my work in boxing and wrestling. They are both good exercises, but they are not up to football.”

     Roosevelt knew the rules of the game would have to be altered to save the sport from those who wanted to abolish it. Later that same year a like-minded football coach down in Auburn would witness something that would forever change the sport. The coach’s name was John Heisman, and what he had witnessed was the first forward pass in football.

Written by Scott Larson
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