The Story of Football

Football image from Skitterphoto

Are you ready for some football? Time to gather around the biggest HDTV you can and snack on all manner of appetizers and junk food while watching pigskins fly and advertisers spend millions of dollars to ‘wow’ us. This year’s Super Bowl is the 50th anniversary of the contest, and thinking about how we have now been holding this annual gridiron tradition for half a century has made me want to look back at the history of the sport in general.

The “Football” family of sports

Soccer image by Wilson Delgado

Let’s begin by stating the obvious. The idea of kicking a ball around is so basic, that it probably appeared spontaneously in many parts of the world at different times through history. The earliest recorded version of a football-like game was cuju, a sport in ancient China that dates as far back as the 2nd Century BC. The players would try to keep the ball in the air like a hacky sack while guiding it toward a net to score.

Fast forward to 19th-century England. At this stage, each city, town and village had its own version of football, with various local football clubs setting the local rules. This system was fine for the locals who were just having fun, but when people began clamoring for rival towns to challenge each others’ best players, it became clear that having some sort of standard set of rules everyone agreed to was necessary. Thus, various clubs decided that a “Football Association” should be formed to establish a common rule book they would all use.

It sounded great on paper, but almost immediately it all fell apart. There was a fundamental disagreement over whether players should be allowed to pick up the football with their hands or not. As you can imagine, this was no minor detail, as being able to pick up the ball would completely change the game.

Rugby image by Skeeze

There was a famous boarding school, the Rugby School, that had a version of football that let players pick up the ball, and this version was becoming increasingly popular. Blackheath Football Club wanted the new Football Association to incorporate some of these “Rugby rules” into its rule book, but the other clubs all refused. Blackheath left the association in protest, and instead gathered some like-minded clubs together to form the rival Rugby Football Union. From this point on, the sport that was based on the Football Association’s rules was known as “association football”, while the sport that used the RFU’s rules became known as “rugby football”. Later, these terms were shortened to soccer and rugby.

Soccer went on to become incredibly popular around the world, and remains the world’s most popular sport today. However, rugby caught on in a few places – Wales, Ireland, France, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and, interestingly enough, the United States. In 1868, a Canadian rugby club was introduced in Montreal, and shortly thereafter the sport began to spread south of the border.

Walter Camp, via Wikipedia

As soon as the Americans got the sport, though, the first thing we thought was “You know, we can make this better.” The first American rugby clubs were set up at Ivy League universities, who all agreed to change the scoring system. Then in 1880, Yale player Walter Camp (pictured above) got all the schools to agree to reduce the number of players on the field and to eliminate the scrum, replacing it with the snap we football fans have all learned to love. Over time, and with heavy input from Camp, the rules were further changed to allow a forward pass (only backward or sideways passes are allowed in rugby) and to break play into a series of downs for the offensive team to try to gain 10 yards on the field.

Thus, the sport was no longer recognizable as “rugby”, and international observers took to calling the sport “American football”. We Americans simply call it football.

A Question of Safety

Football Helmet image from Wikipedia

You’ve probably seen the recent headlines about NFL players suffering concussions and former players suffering ongoing long-term problems such as Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. There was even a movie made about this problem recently, starring Will Smith. Yet the safety of football players has been an ongoing concern from the sport’s earliest days.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, players would sometimes be killed on the field. In 1905, 19 players died nationwide, leading Theodore Roosevelt to threaten banning the sport entirely. This led to rule changes, the introduction of safety equipment for players to wear during games, and the establishment of formal leagues to supervise the sport and make sure all games are played by the rules.

Football referee image by SimonaR

The NCAA was created in 1906 to supervise college sports, while in 1920 the American Professional Football Association was created to supervise professional football players, not only out of concern for their safety but also to prevent corruption. In 1923, the association was renamed the National Football League.

Birth of the Super Bowl

The Super Bowl logo by the NFL

The first four teams of that early NFL were all from Ohio: the Akron Pros, Canton Bulldogs, Cleveland Indians, and Dayton Triangles. One month later, more teams from more states joined, though the character of this early league was still squarely a Great Lakes-area affair. College football was by far the more popular version of the game in those early days, and the new league faced an uphill battle to compete with it. It didn’t help that many early NFL teams used the same team name as their city’s Major League Baseball team.

After World War II, though, the NFL gradually began to gain in popularity. It helped that the league ventured into new markets, moving the Cleveland Rams to California in 1945. A year later, a new professional league tried to claim its share of the football pie. The eight-team All-America Football Conference managed to play three seasons from 1946 to 1949, before going under. Three of its teams survived the collapse and joined the NFL – the Browns, 49ers, and Colts.

This is what is called “foreshadowing”.

In 1959, another group of people decided to try their hand at starting a rival professional football league. The American Football League was far more successful than its predecessor. It gained contracts to have its games aired on TV, it poached talented players and coaches from the NFL, and set up teams in under-served markets like San Diego and Kansas City. By the mid-1960s, the rivalry between the two leagues was fierce and hostile.

Then, all of a sudden, the two leagues agreed to “make peace” in 1966. The leagues officially announced that they would merge in 1970 into a single league, using the “NFL” name. The then-current NFL would become the “National Football Conference” while the AFL would become the “American Football Conference”.

There was just the small matter of U.S. antitrust law. See, this merged league would constitute a monopoly, so Congress had to pass a special law permitting the merger to take place. One of the promises the NFL made to get the deal approved was that once the leagues were merged, no NFL team would ever be relocated to a new city again.

Oh, whoops. We forgot.

Oh, whoops. We forgot.

To drum up fan support for this merger deal, the NFL and AFL agreed that in 1967, the champions of their leagues would face off in a special match to see which football team was the best in the nation. This special match was dubbed the “Super Bowl” in the press, and it was such a success that one was held the next year. And the year after that. And the year after that…

Half a century on, and the Super Bowl is an unofficial national holiday, football is by far America’s most popular sport, and the NFL is the most valuable sports league in the world, with all 32 of its teams in the top 50 most valuable sports teams in the world. Yes, the league has had some bad press lately, but it has listened and responded to its critics and so far is seeming just as strong as ever.

As for me? You can bet that I’ll be watching the big game.

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