The Government Has Tried to Fix Football Before

The Congressional hearing on the Saints' bounty scandal is not unprecedented—Teddy Roosevelt shaped the rules of college gridiron.

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Library of Congress

In deciding to hold a Judiciary Committee hearing about bone-crunching "bounties" in pro football, Senator Dick Durbin seems to be following the great tradition of congressional pandering by exploiting a topic of momentary front-page curiosity.

But he may actually be inadvertently following a legacy of President Theodore Roosevelt in dealing with gridiron mayhem. It's all the more reason to help Durbin with questions for his Senate hearing next month and not just leave it up to those eager 20-something staff aides who'll likely crib from Sports Illustrated or ESPN gabfests.

"So does a bounty of $1,500 for hitting an opposing player particularly hard incentivize you more than your multi-million dollar salary incentivizes you to hit an opposing player particularly hard?" suggests Jeff Seglin, an ethicist and director of the communications program at the Kennedy School at Harvard.

I was moved to solicit help for Durbin, the very sharp assistant majority leader, from Seglin and others in the wake of disclosures about New Orleans Saints players getting extra cash for big hits, including hurting specific high-profile opponents, notably quarterbacks Brett Favre and Kurt Warner.

It's all pretty nasty and prompted the National Football League to severely punish the Saints' head coach and general manager, among others, with fines and suspensions for individual players still in the potential offing.

As for invoking Teddy Roosevelt, I must thank William Serrin, a former New York Times labor reporter who teaches at New York University, and his late wife, Judith, for their wonderful 2002 book, Muckraking! an account of journalism that changed the country.

A section on sports notes how the first college football game was in 1869 between Princeton and Rutgers. Very quickly, carnage and corruption ensued throughout the sport. In 1905, a muckraking magazine called McClure's ran a series that disclosed subsidies paid to players and how such sleaziness was infecting high school football.

More relevant to the upcoming hearing was the violence back then in a world without helmets or pads and where players could even punch rivals three times before they would be ejected.

President Roosevelt was a big football fan who saw the sport as de facto preparation for war. He felt that it was one reason some of his Rough Riders were so tough. Still, he was worried about too much violence and in 1905 beckoned representatives of Princeton, Harvard, and Yale to seek reform. They pledged to do so but, write the Serrins, nothing happened.

Then came a Chicago Tribune series detailing "Football Year's Death Harvest." It detailed the 19 college and high school football deaths during the 1905 season. The paper even simultaneously dispatched a telegram to Roosevelt, "the man to whom the safe and sane devotees of college sport are looking to lead the way out of the bloody shambles of football as played at present," as the paper put it.

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James Warren is the Chicago editor of The Daily Beast and an MSNBC analyst. He is the former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune.

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