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The History of Football in the United States

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This final paper focuses on the issue of the history of football in the United States, because I am interested in the how the sport developed from various forms of ball games to become a distinct and immensely popular sport in the United States. In order to clearly guide the reader, the paper is divided into several parts. The discussion begins with a short summary of football’s early origins from ball games played by indigenous groups around the world to rules-based games in various parts of Europe. This description sets the context, allowing the reader to understand the trajectory of its emergence in the United States. Next, the paper will describe the specific history of football in the United States and how the game emerged to become one of the country’s most popular and beloved sports. This final paper concludes with a summary of the main points regarding football’s development in the United States.  

Background: Football’s Early Origins

Kicking games have been played by people across cultures and around the world for centuries. According to David Goldblatt (2008), author of, “The Ball is Round: A Global History of Soccer,” archeological records show humans kicking man-made balls since 2000 B.C.E. However, Goldblatt maintains that most of this kicking was not early football, as it lacked the rules and strategy that are essential to the game. Instead, this kicking was a form of play, one that may be instinctive to human beings. One of the earliest known kicking games with rules and strategy comes from China under the Han dynasty, from 206 B.C.E. to 221 C.E. The game was called cuju, was played with a leather ball, and some suggest that it was developed by the army as part of Chinese soldiers’ training and recreation (p. 38-39). The Japanese played a similar game called kemari. In terms of its European origins, kicking games have been played across Europe for centuries. English folklore holds that when the English conquered the Danes in the 10th century, they kicked the skull of a Dane in disgust as part of the game that became football (Orejan, 2011, p.10).  

In Britain and other European countries, ball-kicking games were common for centuries before they were codified and structured into official games. One of the first accounts of the game that became rugby and football comes from William FitzStephen’s description of the activities of London youth in the 1100s: “After lunch all the youth of the city go out into the fields to take part in a ball game. The students of each school have their own ball; the workers from each city craft are also carrying their balls. Older citizens, fathers, and wealthy citizens come on horseback to watch their juniors competing, and to relive their own youth vicariously: you can see their inner passions aroused as they watch the action and get caught up in the fun being had by the carefree adolescents” (Riley, 1860, p. 2-15). The Middle Ages saw a more violent version of this game adopted, and monarchs such as Edward IV attempted it to ban it in order to encourage activities that would be more useful in defending the kingdom, such as archery (Orejan, 2011, p. 17-22).

Though legends abound about the students who were the founders of modern-day rugby at the Rugby School in Britain, scholars agree that versions of rugby were played at the school which contributed significantly to the development of the sport. The sport became more popular in Britain in the mid-nineteenth century as the competition of trade and colonialism abroad contributed to the idea that sport and competitiveness were authentically British qualities (Collins, 2009, p. 6). This is the attitude associated with rugby, the sport that was the precursor to American football.

Football in the United States

This section of the essay discusses how football emerged in the United States and describes some of the turning points and famous historical figures that created American football.

Today’s American football is a descendant of British rugby. Though there are accounts of American colonists playing games with balls at Jamestown, Virginia in the early 17th century, it was the influence of British rugby that contributed most to American football (Gems & Pfister, 2009, p. 38). As versions of British rugby began to be played in small towns and on university campuses in America, the game began to develop its own characteristics and grow distinct from British rugby. Walter Camp, an American football player, coach, and sports writer, is widely acknowledged to be the founder of football in the United States. In his 1893 book, “American Football,” Camp clearly identifies the predecessor of American football, stating: “[…] it is from the Rugby Union Rules that our American Intercollegiate game was derived” (Camp, 1893, p. 12). At the time when Camp wrote his book, football has not yet reached widespread popularity among Americans. Camp noted: “It [American football] is quite extensively played in this country, but more by those who themselves have played it in Great Britain than by native-born Americans.” However, Camp did state that American football was growing in popularity and he correctly predicted that the sport would continue to win players, fans, and spectators (Camp, 1893, p. 12-13).

Although the popularity of the game was growing in the late 1800s, it was not without controversy and opposition. Games at Harvard and Yale often had a mob-like quality, and injuries were common. In 1860, the violence spread into the town of New Haven and town officials complained to Yale authorities. The game was temporarily abolished, and it was also banned at Harvard during the same year. Harvard students, disappointed by the decision, held a funeral for football where they chanted:

“Beneath this sod we lay you down,

This sign of glorious fight;

With dismal groans and yells we'll drown

Your mournful burial rite!” (PFRA research,1999).

By the 1920s, college football had reached such popularity in the United States that football coaches were stars upon college campuses and were paid a salary up to 20% higher than that of university professors (Gorn, 2004, p. 232). Charles Dudley Daly, one of the first prominent football players and coaches, wrote a book in 1921 titled “American Football” that laid out the rules, strategies, and tactics for playing football. Daly wrote: “The game of football is based on three underlying fundamentals: tackling, interference, and following the ball” (Daly, 1921, p. 15). Theses fundamentals persist in modern American football today.

Professional football officially emerged in September 1920, when the American Professional Football League was founded in Canton, Ohio. This organization later became the National Football League, which is the name it carries today. The 1940s and 1950s were a time of expansive growth for the National Football League and American football. The game grew from small towns to large stadiums in major American cities. The leading cause of this dramatic expansion was the screening of football games on television. Cleveland Browns founder Paul Brown strongly believes that television helped create American football’s popularity, saying: “television has had the greatest impact on pro football, more than anything else over the years” and that television was what “made the game” (Gruver, 1997, p. 8).

Significance and Conclusion

Examining the history of American football in the United States reveals the story of a sport that is closely tied to American culture. American football remains a powerful force for players, spectators, coaches. The football industry in the U.S. has grown significantly since the sport began its rise to widespread popularity in the 1920s.

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