Book Review: The Big Scrum

The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football is the newest book by author John J. Miller.  It chronicles the birth of football through the early 1900s and tells the story of how the game we all know and love was almost abolished.

Tracing the roots of football, The Big Scrum focuses on the key personalities involved with the formation of the sport as well as the move to abolish it.  Football had become so dangerous that dozens of young men died each year playing it.  The popular new game came under intense criticism from those who wanted the game prohibited for the sake of public safety.

Miller, an accomplished author and reporter, focuses in on key figures in the tale such as Walter Camp (head coach of Yale, and the innovator responsible for turning football away from its roots as soccer and into a game that we would recognize today), Harvard president Charles Eliot (a ground-breaking education innovator and strong opponent of football), and Theodore Roosevelt, the president whose support and foresight helped to save the game.

The book is an impeccable piece of research as Miller churned through scores of archived letters and documents from the principles as he constructed a narrative that carries football from its infancy through to the establishment of the NCAA.  Simultaneously, Miller shows the social forces at work in the post-Civil War United States that lead to the culture clash over the violent new game.

Central to the book is the larger-than-life persona of Teddy Roosevelt.  His life-long dedication to fitness and ‘the strenuous life’ made him a fan and defender of the game of football, even as he recognized its need to become safer.  Miller does a brilliant job of capturing Roosevelt’s passion and motivation for preserving the game:

In Roosevelt’s estimation, the foes of football were wrongheaded idealists who simply refused to accept the risks that are attached to virtually any human endeavor.  They threatened to feminize an entire generation.  At stake was nothing less than the future of the United States.  On the threshold of a new century, would the country seize its historic destiny and grow into a world power or would it stop short of this accomplishment because it had turned out in Roosevelt’s words, “mollycoddles instead of vigorous men”?

The book is a wonderful piece of history and biography.  Even as a student of American history and of Roosevelt, I found new nuggets and perspectives that I had not previously considered.  The final seventy-five pages clip along at an excellent pace as the stories of football, Roosevelt, Camp and Eliot converge in a fateful summit at the White House designed to save football.  The result of the meetings was a new commitment to the forward pass and the beginning of a safer, more exciting brand of football than the country had seen before.

There are easy parrallels to be drawn between the state of football now and a hundred years ago.  Even as new research calls into question the viability of the game in the face of new head trauma data, there have already been whispers that football is simply too dangerous to play.  Leagues at all levels are forced to consider rule changes designed to make the game safer, but such changes also threaten to change the nature of the game itself.  Miller’s book is a timely look at a sport in crisis. 

I spoke with John J. Miller about his book and the result is a must listen (note: the podcast can also be heard on the embedded player on the main page).

I throughly enjoyed The Big Scrum, and consider it a valuable resource as we consider the future of football.