Looking back on Northwestern’s nearly complete football season, it’s hard to imagine a more quintessential college tradition than going to games at Ryan Field and cheering for touchdowns and tackles every Saturday. At a university where the football program is held so sacred, it seems inconceivable that the sport could completely disappear from campus. But a little more than a century ago, that’s exactly what happened.
In March 1906, a specially formed committee to evaluate the school’s Athletic Association submitted a report to the Board of Trustees urging a full suspension of intercollegiate football to “eliminate the evils” of the school’s athletic programs “for a considerable period of time, if not indefinitely.” The report was a response to the Athletic Association’s (the older equivalent of the school’s athletic department) unfettered spending on the program and a growing national perception of football as a barbaric sport that had no place on college campuses. By June of the same year, intercollegiate football was banned at Northwestern.
While it was the first and only school in the Midwest to ban its football program, Northwestern was far from the only one whose faculty looked down upon the sport. Columbia University had banned football for a period of nearly 10 years, and following annual Harvard-Yale football games that were so violent that they became known as the “Hampden Park Blood Bath,” Harvard president Charles William Eliot openly denounced the game.
Northwestern University archivist Kevin Leonard, who manages all the school’s historical archives and has researched the suspension extensively, pointed to Eliot as one of the nation’s top critics of college-level football.
“To [Eliot], the fact that football involved so much deception was naturally ungentlemanly,” Leonard said. “His belief was, ‘how honest and respectable can this game be if you need a referee to call the result of each play?’”
Dr. Dudley A. Sargent, another member of the Harvard faculty at the time, was horrified by the brutality inherent in football.
“The player is actually allowed to hack, throttle, butt, or strike his opponent twice before he is disqualified,” Sargent wrote, according to a 1976 essay by professor David Scheidecker. “In point of practice, the players…were encouraged and even commanded, by the captain on the field to take their ‘warning’ during the progress of the game.”
Critics around the country didn’t cite violence based on principle alone — due to the nature of the game at that time, which involved almost entirely running plays (the forward pass had not yet been introduced into the sport) and crude protective equipment, injuries and even deaths on the field were commonplace.
“Players would run what’s called ‘flying wedge’ plays, where everyone would target one guy and run at him in hopes of breaking through the line,” Leonard said. “And a lot of times they would start five or 10 yards behind the line [of scrimmage] and run up to build momentum so they could bowl everyone over.”
The result of this kind of play was catastrophic to players in the first decade of the 20th century. Between 1901 and 1905 alone, 74 players were killed and 689 were injured playing football on campuses across the country.
This deadly trend of brutality, stark as it was, was not the only reason the football program was suspended at Northwestern. Faculty members pointed to the prevalence of gambling on football games as an unsavory element of the sport that the school would be better without. Edmund J. James, president of Northwestern from 1902 to 1904, suggested that the program’s suspension would “lessen the gambling tendencies which are too striking and too characteristic of our American institutions of learning.”
But the principal reason why those running the school made the decision to nix the sport, according to Leonard, was fiscal. The Athletic Association, he said, was spending the university’s money at a rate the trustees considered out of control. By the year of the ban, the association had incurred a debt of more than $12,000.
“The Athletic Association was representing the university, and they were not conducting themselves in a way that was acceptable to the trustees,” Leonard said. “So it was really just a matter of the school’s governing body trying to reign in a loose cannon organization.” The growing nationwide contempt for football, he said, presented the perfect opportunity for the trustees to pull the plug.
What the trustees could not stop, though, was football’s burgeoning popularity throughout the school. Intramural football games continued in full force after the 1906 ban, only gaining support in the absence of intercollegiate competition.
Deprived football enthusiasts held demonstrations in favor of reinstating the varsity program, all leading up to a December 1907 meeting where nearly a thousand students and alumni drafted a petition to bring competitive football back to Northwestern. By the end of the month, the petition had signatures from 79 percent of the entire student population. The trustees, conceding that the ban had lost nearly all of its support, reinstated the football program for the 1908 season.
According to Leonard, the suspension was doomed from the very beginning.
“By that time, football had already gotten far too popular for anyone to tolerate a suspension,” he said. “Even then, it was probably the sport most associated with college life.”
And in the century that followed, universities everywhere would only see that association grow. The NCAA would be established in 1910, regulating college sports and reforming the rules to limit violence. Cheerleading teams and spirit programs would be founded at Northwestern and all around the country to help draw more student support for their teams. Only a few decades after the Board of Trustees thought Northwestern would be better off without football, the sport and the school would become inseparable.
But the real reason football could never be successfully banned from Northwestern may have been best summarized in a 1906 editorial from the student newspaper The Northwestern:
“College students go to football games for the same reason Mexicans go to bullfights: because they want to see a battle. Possibly students ought not to be thus, but thus they are — because they are men, and not angels.”