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Haverford Fall 2012 : Page 13

O ver the past decade, intensi-fying controver-sy has shrouded football. Its punishing plays have left a rash of brain-dam-aged ex-players, and more than 2,000 of them with con-cussion-related ailments have filed suit against the NFL. But the issue of violence in foot-ball is nothing new. The dan-gerous game was the subject of major debate in 1906, when Haverford professor Dr. James A. Babbitt was a central figure in a power struggle for the future of a sport on the brink of being abolished. In the reformist Progressive era, muckrakers scrutinized football as rigor-ously as they did industry. In 1905, Collier’s and McClure’s magazines pub-lished exposés on rampant professionalism in college ball. This air of dishonesty combined with appalling violence to produce a stink. That fall, The Chicago Tribune wrote an open letter to President Theodore Roosevelt. The letter, syndi-cated nationally, cited 19 players “slaughtered” that year at various levels of play. The game looked differ-ent then. Forward passing was illegal. Helmetless squads often linked arms and ran at each other in massed formations. Cage-fight-wor-thy maneuvers went on in the scrums. Football was brutal, but it was popular. In 1902, Harvard built one of the world’s first reinforced con-crete buildings, a stadium, to house the tens of thousands From the 1904 Class Record that the school’s games attracted. Haverford’s own football program (which would be shut down in 1973) was also highly popu-lar during this era. One account from the time recalls that half the student body traveled more than 50 miles to Lehigh University for a game. Such was football’s prominence that Roosevelt felt obligated to intervene— either for the public good or to make political hay. Roosevelt used his “bully pulpit,” telling representa-tives from the Harvard-Yale-Princeton triad to “change the game or forsake it.” Two committees con-vened. The first, a “New Rules Committee” created by NYU, included Babbitt, Haverford’s athletic director. The second, an “Old Rules Committee,” included the triad and other big football powers. The New Rules Committee, with more mem-bers, formed a strong govern-ing structure to become the forebear of the modern NCAA. Harvard defected to the New Rules Committee, and the hamstrung Old Rules Committee agreed to a merger. Babbitt, the longtime head of officiating, was selected as secretary of the combined committee. His appointment was meant to balance the chairmanship of an Old Rules Committee member—and to keep the fractious triad out of the two executive positions. But the political balance imploded in a coup that made front-page news. At the first meeting, Babbitt unex-pectedly resigned his office in favor of Harvard’s coach, Bill Reid, a colleague on the New Rules Committee. It was a Machiavellian stroke. Babbitt seemed a Harvard agent. Under Roosevelt’s watchful eye, Yale and Princeton couldn’t withdraw from the committee. The Harvard-controlled committee brought a num-ber of changes to the game, including the introduction of the forward pass and the 10-yard first down; and out-lawed punching, kneeing and several dangerous plays. The next decade would see the rules move toward their current form. Historical commentary about Babbitt’s deception is sparse. One theory is that appeasing Harvard curried favor with Roosevelt—a Harvard man and football partisan. But perhaps Babbitt resigned for the good of his team rather than as a Harvard pawn. In 1906 the Haverford team had its first undefeated season in 17 years. The 1906-07 Haverford yearbook’s analy-sis of the Fords’ season cites two critical reasons for suc-Dr. James A. Babbitt, Haver-ford’s Athletics Director. In 1905 he became a central figure in a public debate about violence in football. PHOTOS: QUAKER & SPECIAL COLLECTIONS cess—Babbitt’s understand-ing of the new rules and the undersized team’s use of the new forward pass. Babbitt, who sat on the rules committee through the 1920s, went on to organize Friends hospitals in France during World War I and is better remembered for his humanitarian achievements than his sporting ones. —Michael Fichman ’05 FALL 2012 13 main lines Football Furor

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