The unlikely—and perhaps slightly overblown—tale of how Teddy Roosevelt flexed presidential muscle to save the fledgling game of football.
The story of football’s rise from a haphazardly organized game dominated by Yale and Harvard to America’s favorite sport is a fascinating one, requiring the contributions of many men—not the least of whom, writes National Review correspondent Miller (The First Assassin, 2010, etc.), was President Roosevelt. An advocate of the “strenuous life” that helped him overcome childhood asthma, the president admired those who sacrificed their bodies on the playing field and felt it was the job of America’s universities to spend as much time molding young men’s bodies as they did minds. Football’s popularity grew in lockstep with Roosevelt’s political success, though the game became increasingly controversial, the result of a style of play that led to numerous deaths and countless debilitating injuries. Trailblazing Harvard president Charles Eliot, himself a firm believer in exercise, crusaded against football as a dangerous endeavor that encouraged deception and cruelty, making him the perfect foil for Harvard grad Roosevelt. Even as Eliot led efforts to ban football, Roosevelt called the game’s most influential coaches—including legendary Yale coach Walter Camp—to a White House summit to discuss the state of the game. Though the tangible results of that meeting—a joint statement by the coaches in which they promised to be more vigilant in upholding the rules of fair play—were minimal, the author contends that the meeting had a profound impact on the game’s development and set Roosevelt up as a behind-the-scenes influencer who ensured the game’s survival long enough for new rules (including the forward pass) to make it safer. It’s a worthy addendum to the story of football’s rise, even though the case for Roosevelt as a cornerstone of its development feels overstated.
A good yarn, but might have made a better chapter than a full-length monograph.