The Day They Almost Abolished Football
Twenty seasons after its formal introduction at the University of Kansas, the game of football had plenty of fans – and plenty of detractors as well. In the former category were many KU students and alumni, as well as University Chancellor Frank Strong (although he did, apparently, have some reservations about the sport). But in the latter zone were J.W. Gleed and William Allen White, members of the Board of Regents and significant men in their own rights in early twentieth-century Kansas.
And on this day in KU history, Gleed proposed and White seconded a motion to abolish football until the rules were changed to eliminate endemic corruption and promote player safety. Although the motion was defeated, the Board of Regents agreed that it was “opposed to the game of football as now conducted, believing it does not tend to clean athletics.” For the next few months, the future of football at KU hung in the balance, and for a while, it almost seemed that English Rugby would replace this classic American college game.
KU’s Athletic Association had organized its first football team in September 1890. Despite an inauspicious inaugural season that saw the Jayhawkers lose twice to Baker (though Kansas fans claimed the second game as a victory because of some questionable officiating), students and the rest of the University faithful embraced the sport wholeheartedly.
The universities of the sort to which KU aspired to equal – the Ivy League schools and Michigan for instance – all maintained top-flight football teams, and so the University of Kansas’ supporters believed their institution needed to develop a similarly excellent team. As a result, football came to enjoy an immense popularity at KU. Students, alumni, and faculty members all rallied their school spirit behind a team that over its first two full seasons (1891-1892) enjoyed a record of 14-1-1.
These initial successes fostered the expectation that future teams would fare equally well. When this failed to happen, Kansas boosters sought other ways to help ensure gridiron victories. KU began recruiting paid athletes and the team allowed players who were not passing their classes (or were not enrolled students at all) to participate in the weekly games.
By 1895, the demise of the team’s amateurism had bred a number of critics within the University, including English professor Edwin M. Hopkins who had served as KU’s football coach for its very successful 1891 and 1892 seasons. Hopkins was not alone in wondering whether football on Mt. Oread had come to “stand for brutality, for trickery; for paid players, for profanity, for betting before games and for drinking after them.”
The brutality to which Hopkins alluded was indeed an integral part of the game as it was played in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Players wore very little in the way of protective gear, even spurning helmets. Compounding these problems was the fact that officials enforced what few safety rules there were rather unevenly. In 1894, for example, the officials failed to penalize Michigan’s team after one of its players jumped (with both feet) on a Kansas player who had just scored a touchdown.
Two years later, a player named Bert Serf from Doane College in Nebraska was killed while making a touchdown-saving tackle against Kansas in the final minute of a game in which he had earlier been knocked unconscious. Serf’s death led the Kansas University Weekly to conclude, “rather than allow this [sort of] danger to exist it would be better to abolish the game completely.” When the paper ultimately backed off and asked instead that the Western Inter-State University Foot Ball Association (to which KU belonged) “adopt the needed reforms,” it fell in line with the majority of the game’s critics.
But in 1901, KU Coach John Outland (of the Outland Trophy fame) was caught using an ineligible player with an assumed name. Criticism of the game began to mount again and continued to do so for the remainder of the first decade of the twentieth century. Much of the criticism was well deserved. After a 1903 Kansas-Nebraska game, both sides charged the other with using ineligible players and in consequence suspended all future athletic contests between the schools. The following year, KU Chancellor Frank Strong had to fire Coach Harold S. Weeks for carrying on a sexual relationship with a freshman girl.
By the end of the autumn of 1905, the University was not alone in its skepticism about the benefits of football. Following that year’s season – in which 18 college players from schools around the country died from injuries sustained in games and more than 150 were hurt seriously – cries for football’s abolition echoed from every quarter of the nation.
In December 1905, influential representatives of 62 universities met in New York City to decide the fate of the game. They decided to keep it, but formed the Intercollegiate Athletic Association (which later became the National Collegiate Athletic Association) to work with the American Football Rules Committee to make the game safer. Most of the rules that were adopted early in 1906 (including the legalization of the forward pass and the adoption of a neutral zone) were designed to spread out the players so that there would be fewer pileups.
The change in the rules, coupled with KU’s entry into the Missouri Valley Conference in 1907, eased the debate over the game’s future at the University. But this was only temporary. Complaints about football cropped up again during the 1909 season when it became apparent that certain KU boosters were paying substitutes to cover the shifts of football players when their outside jobs interfered with practices or games. (At the time, it was acceptable for college athletes to be employed, as long as they actually worked for the money.) In addition, the University had broken conference rules by spending more than $400 on training tables, which regularly featured steak dinners aimed at keeping the players healthy.
The proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back came, perhaps, in the rumor that opposing coaches had begun supplying their players with alcohol and narcotics both to ease pain and heighten energy. Thus it was that when the Board of Regents met on January 28, 1910, J.W. Gleed made a motion to abolish intercollegiate football at the university. Fellow regent William Allen White joined him in his motion.
This proposal failed to achieve majority support, but the Regents subsequently invited representatives from the other schools in the Missouri Valley Conference to a meeting scheduled for April 19 in which the matter of the “betterment of the present game” might be discussed. If the talks concluded that that the game was irretrievably corrupt, the Regents were willing to accept the substitution of English Rugby for football or mandate football’s outright abolition.
In the weeks that followed, the relative merits of football were debated at all levels of the University. The Regents remained divided over the issue even after Gleed published an attack on the game in which he alluded to players who “get a passing grade without earning it” and maintained that it was not “possible for men to engage in fierce hand to hand physical struggle without arousing the smashing and destroying instinct which comes down to us from our animal ancestors.”
Chancellor Strong, who favored the retention of football, wrote a letter to the American Football Rules Committee encouraging them to make substantive changes in the rules to protect collegiate players. KU Coach Bert Kennedy asserted that the game was no more dangerous than any other sport at the University and argued that his “football players [were] among the manliest men in the school.” College Dean Olin Templin, however, hoped that rugby would replace football and insisted that “from a spectator’s point of view [English Rugby was] much the better game.”
Even W.H. Stubbs, the governor of Kansas, entered the fray and announced his opposition to football in April 1910. As might be expected from a politician, he waffled somewhat. When addressing a crowd of students, he claimed to “like clean American sports,” and announced that the “old American game is good enough for me.”
KU students, for their part, almost universally favored retaining football and soon launched, as the Kansan reported, “an open campaign against rugby.” Members of the football team, Coach Kennedy, and Dr. James Naismith, the inventor of basketball and KU’s director of physical culture, assisted the students in this effort. Naismith gave a resounding endorsement of the contested sport when he announced at a mass meeting that he had “always believed that football [was] the typical college game.” Shortly thereafter, a “football ticket” was organized to run in student government elections, and all of its candidates won.
Nonetheless, student hopes for the preservation of KU football began to dwindle in early April when word leaked out that Coach Kennedy would devote the team’s spring practices to teaching his players the game of rugby. Within days, many students had grown downright despondent and started to assume that their cause was lost. The Kansan even published an article explaining the rules of rugby to the students so that they would understand what it was they had been opposing.
This “Monday mourning” turned out to be premature. On April 19, 1910, the schools of the Missouri Valley Conference voted to retain their football teams. However, the conference did institute some rules it hoped would de-emphasize the importance of football at its respective universities. The representatives of the schools banned freshmen from playing on the varsity football squad, proscribed Thanksgiving Day football games, mandated that all intercollegiate games be played on college campuses, and forbade the hiring of any coach who was not a “regular member of the teaching staff employed by the governing board of the institution, for the full academic year.”
Although the changes made little difference in the questionable practices of KU’s football team, the game was never again threatened at the University. (The following year, for example, a man named Henry Ahrens “was induced to [play football for] the University by offers of payment in one fashion or another” and managed to masquerade as a law school student while he was on the team. When the matter was discovered, the Board of Regents hinted that it might again “seriously [consider] the abolition of football,” but ultimately did not.)
Ironically enough, despite all of the emphasis placed on football in the early years and the cheating that accompanied it, KU never developed into a football powerhouse in the manner that the flagship universities of the states immediately to the north and south of Kansas did. And while all this attention was focused on football, KU quietly developed a basketball program that would rank among the very best in the nation. If KU could not say it achieved the greatness of Notre Dame, Michigan, or Alabama in the sport in which it so badly wanted to excel, its ability to claim membership in the same basketball fraternity as UCLA, Duke, and Kentucky proved to be a more than adequate consolation prize.
Mark D. Hersey
Department of History
University of Kansas