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


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.

The series made a mark. "I demand that football change its rules or be abolished," Roosevelt declared. "Brutality and foul play should receive the same summary punishment given to a man who cheats at cards! Change the game or forsake it."

Change came rapidly, mostly via formation of the Inter-Collegiate Athletic Association, precursor of today's National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the governing body of college sports. The length of games was shortened and various tactics were banned, including hurdling, the wedge formation and the kicking of rolling balls. The definition of illegal play was expanded to include kicking, kneeing, and smashing a runner in the face with the heel of a hand.

Deaths were generally eliminated, though clearly the sport has remained a very tough one, with the ills of commercialization only expanding.

And that gets us to the locker-room bounties in the NFL, the catalyst of Durbin's upcoming hearing on bounties in any and all pro sports.

Harvard's Seglin proposes asking any players who might testify as to whether they'd play any harder for a team that has a bounty program.

As for the coaches ensnarled in the Saints' mess, or any others who might fess up to involvement in anything similar, his question is simple: "What were you guys thinking?" Colin Greer, a Scottish-bred educator who is president of the New World Foundation, which pursues a politically liberal agenda, has these questions for Durbin:

"In sports should we favor a frontier culture?"

"How are today's athletes supposedly any different from gladiators?"

"Are sports stars role models for our kids and should that guide what we expect of the businesses that pay them?"

Durbin has already made clear his general perspective.

"Let's be real basic about it here. If this activity were taking place off of a sporting field, away from a court, nobody would have a second thought (about it being wayward). 'You mean someone paid you to go out and hurt someone?'"

Well, I can only make one suggestion to everybody: Chess.

My eight-year-old plays and, at a recent tournament in Skokie, Il., I made the acquaintance of Varuzhan Akobian, an Armenian-born grandmaster who lives in California and coaches the United States team at the Chess Olympiad.

Yes, yes, I know how some famous players have been known to humiliate opponents but it's really more a mild form of mental gamesmanship. It does seem quite a bit different than trying to turn a quarterback's brain into instant Jell-O.

Akobian harkened back to perhaps the most famous chess rivalry ever, that between America's Bobby Fischer and the then-Soviet Union's Boris Spaasky. It put chess on the front pages for many months, enthralling even the vast majority clueless about rooks and pawns.

"I think once that Fischer and Spaasky were playing and they put a piece of wood between them under the table so they wouldn't kick one another," Akobian said. "But that's about the most violent it ever gets."

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