There is nothing new under the sun. Information ebbs and flows, and the current internet era has opened up both archives and expanded connections between communities. It turns out, much of the debate and talking points when it comes to football safety have been addressed at various times through the sport’s history.
Matt Chaney put together an extensive review of archived newspaper articles and journals going back before the turn of the 19th century, to show what was known or discussed on these topics. I spoke with Matt on a podcast about what went into this research, and some of the specifics, which you can listen to above.
Here is a summary of some of the long-lost revelations from the archives:
- From a coach at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, around the turn of the 19th century: “The best way to learn tackling is with a dummy with head thrown to one side; that saves your head, and in doing this you may have to overlook the rule about keeping the head to one side. The softest place to put it is in the other man’s stomach. That makes a pretty tackle, too.” Pratt Institute canceled football less than a decade later because of injuries and violence in the sport.
- From the The Asbury Park Press, circa 1911: “It is to be hoped that if football retains its hold upon the American heart that “butting” may be so modified as to preserve the college young man’s skull for future and perhaps more laudable uses. In any event “tackle” with heads up should be substituted for “tackle” with heads down in the football contest. Athletes may get along with broken noses and gradual elimination of front teeth but the skull is valuable and rules should be made to hold it intact if possible.”
- From The Altoona Tribune, 1926, a commentary on the practical implications that could just as easily apply today: “Tackling below the shoulder would be a very fine thing and very practical if runners could be forced to do their sprinting with head up and chest out. The sad part of it is that runners, like [“Galloping Ghost” Red Grange], run very low. If the Wheaton ice man is to be tossed at all, the tackler has little time or opportunity to pick a suitable spot of the Phantom around which to twine his arms. Officials believe that high tackling should be punishable to a 15-yard penalty.”
- Grantland Rice once wrote: “Tackle with your head up… A ball carrier should keep the head up… Use shoulders, hips and body… know the proper way to block.”
- Yale coach and physician Dr. Marvin “Mal” Stevens another proponent of heads-up football, said of new helmet technology in a 1933 book: “It is well within the bounds of reason that within a short space of time football equipment can and will be materially improved, and we look forward confidently to the near future when vastly improved headgear will eliminate all serious head injuries.”
The literature also shows plenty of knowledge and discussion on the impacts of hits on behavior.
- In a story that could have come from recent headlines, a young man named Ray Yerger, in 1915, “raged and tossed furniture, threatening to kill his father. Police arrived and placed him in custody. It was holiday season, four years since his football trauma at Reading.” Yerger committed suicide later while in a pyschiatric facility. He had suffered a severe football head injury, and was also beaned by a baseball that aggravated symptoms.
- Drs. Michael Osnato and Vincent Giliberti discussed traumatic encephalitis in their 1927 article on post-concussion damage for Archives of Neurology & Psychiatry. The New York physicians concluded brain disease might manifest in “young men knocked out in football and other games,” announcing: “Our work shows that the structural factors in post-concussion neurosis have not received adequate attention.”
- Dr. James W. Barton wrote of the differing thoughts on concussions: “As students we were taught that a “concussion” was just a shaking up of the brain. That it was as if you took the skull in your hands and gave the contents a “shake.” No injury followed it, because the bony case, the skull, was not injured. …However, Dr. H.S. Martland some months ago told us that in some of these cases the brain substance can be “bruised” just like other parts of the body, and this bruising results in the breaking of tiny blood vessels and discoloration just as in a bruise of the skin. … It certainly does not mean that boxing, football or other sports should be abandoned, but where an athlete or a player in any kind of sport gets a bump, a blow, or a kick, and finds it results in a loss of memory, however short, he should keep away from that sport for a time, because it is the “repeated knocks,” coming at frequent intervals, that may finally unbalance the mind.”
- Just as we have criticized specific coaches today for not seeing a concussion and putting clearly-concussed players in harm’s way, New York sports columnist W.O. McGeehan criticized a coach for returning a “punch drunk” player to action in the 1920’s, when “the first thing he did was to toss a forward pass to one of the opponents.”
- Coach Knute Rockne joked in Collier’s magazine about a “punch drunk” halfback at Notre Dame, unable to find his sideline after getting rocked in a game.
- Jim Crowley, Michigan State coach, who played at Notre Dame, limited contact in practices citing concern over ending up with “punch drunk” players if he did not.
- An AP story noted how much preparation the Notre Dame trainer undertook to be ready for the season: “Taught by experience, he has ordered a gross of boxes of inhalants, or 1,440 “smellers,” just about the quantity he needs to revive young gridders knocked unconscious on the gridiron. In the old days a bucket of water was all that was necessary.”
- In the 1930’s, several doctors spoke out about risks of football. Dr. William Brady Dr. Brady “ripped juvenile play and enabler parents, along with characterizing schools as football churches that made pariahs of boys who resisted recruitment, indoctrination.”
- Dr. Louis Berg spoke of “punch drunk”: “In truth it is an actual mental disorder—though not known scientifically under that name—brought on by repeated injuries to the blood vessels of the brain and the production of what is called chronic encephalitis. It is a mistake to assume that this is a condition confined solely to ex-boxers. True the old-time fighter and in particular the preliminary boy, who risked his neck for a few dollars and the plaudits of the gallery, were the commonest exponents of this condition. But today one sees other victims of this disease due to punishment received about the head. Such a type is the football player who partakes in one game or one scrimmage too many. …” [emphasis ours]
- From Dr. Edward J. Carroll, in 1936, American Journal of Medical Sciences: “But a higher end would be the education of the layman to the remote dangers incident to repeated minor head traumas. The occurrence of this type of degenerative brain change must be recognized and publicized rather than disregarded and discounted. It is especially important that athletes entering into competitions in which head injuries are frequent and knock-outs are common should realize that they are exposing themselves not only to immediate injury, but also to remote and more sinister effects. [emphasis ours]
- Copeland C. Burg wrote this in a 1934 The Chicago American piece:
CHICAGO, Oct. 6—Punch-drunk football players! Sure—there are lots of them.
Like punch-drunk prizefighters, they are goofy and wander around in the clouds most of the time.
But try and prove it!
We mean get some football coach or big player to talk about it for publication.
Nothing doing. When queried they look at you as though you were very punch-drunk yourself and walk away.
But off the record they will tell you plenty.
They will tell you that _________ _________, at one time one of the biggest backfield stars in America, is so punch drunk he goes around writing bum checks, forgetting important engagements and generally acting so strange and absent-minded that he has ruined his professional career. He’s punch-drunk.
They will tell that __________ _________, formerly a big eastern star, who thrilled the overflowing stands with long runs down the field, is about to be taken to an insane asylum. He’s harmless but more easily cared for at an institution than in the home of a relative. Another punch-drunk victim.
- In 1940, the following was included in an American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) recommendation: “During the past seven years the practice has been too prevalent of allowing players to continue playing after a concussion. Again this year this is true. This can be checked at the time of the preseason medical examination by case history questions. A case in point is where no knowledge was had before the player’s death of a boy who suffered a previous concussion from a bicycle accident. Sports demanding personal contact should be eliminated after an individual has suffered one concussion.” [emphasis ours]