Brutality and Similarities

Early college football at Penn was simply brutal.  Diane Roberts characterizes college football as “savagery sanctioned by the very institutions of higher learning founded to civilize us.”  Some formations allowed for several offensive lineman to launch attacks on defenders, and new rules had to be put in place starting in the 1903-1904 season to limit the number of lineman allowed.  Penn, Harvard, Princeton, and Yale met to discuss taking these mass plays out of the game to minimize the barbarity.  Penn and Harvard chose to adopt their own set of rules so that they could keep these plays, which were the reason for the success of their programs.  In 1905 there were eighteen deaths from intercollegiate sports.  A New York Times editorial on the brutality of these Penn, Princeton, Harvard, and Yale games said that “the record of French duels for the last dozen years fails to show such a list of casualties as this one game of football has produced."

This game played by young men was raised to the level of an ultimate battle for dominance.  With their massed formations, charges, and retreats, football games seemed to recreate the features of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century battle.  After a West Point cadet was killed in a football match in 1909, military men debated the comparison.  In The Independent for 1909, William Everett Hicks concluded that football had no value as military training.  Others begged to differ, including Col. James Parker, who advised his Eleventh Cavalry Regiment that "football is calculated to bring out and develop the most valuable soldierly qualities—courage, ready obedience, and unflinching fortitude under pain and stress."   Even the bands at football games mimiced their military counterparts in dress and purpose.   It is ironic that a critic of football in 1905 invoked the same quotation from Horace, Odes 3.2, that Wilfred Owen would use for a grimmer combat in 1917: "Is not the atmosphere of Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori a little too intense on the modern football field?"  (Paul van Dyke, "Athletics and Education," Outlook 79 (1905) 392.)

A more potent and enduring comparison, though, has been with gladiatorial combat.  A Google search for "football" and "gladiators" will turn up dozens of hits.  One veteran NFL player, Takeo Spikes, made the comparison explicit in 2012:  “We are so prideful in the way people view us as modern-day gladiators, how tough we are, how we can fight through anything and keep it all inside.”  The mindset of college football players in the game's early stages was similar to that of Roman gladiators.  On October 30, 1897, the Red and Black newspaper said that the athletes competing in the game between the University of Georgia and the University of Virginia later that day realized “the fact that there [was] much at stake, and each one [entered] the game with a determination to win or die.”  

The savagery of gladiatorial combat needs no explanation.  If two skilled criminals or slaves had been forced to fight to the death for the entertainment of large crowds in the early 20th century, there would have been public outrage.  However, when large groups of college students risked their lives to play a game, it was used as the example of good teamwork, dedicated training, and masculinity.  Gladiatorial games were held for both entertainment and to get rid of the unwanted criminals and slaves and appealed to the Roman masses.  However, these games did not go unopposed.  Many ancient Roman intellectuals opposed this barbaric form of entertainment.  Pliny the Younger called gladiatorial combat “so silly, so low, so uninteresting, so common an entertainment.”  Apart from the sheer brutality, another similarity to college football is the music.  In the Colosseum, music played during the interludes for lighter entertainment, and trumpets and the hydraulis or water organ punctuated the combats.  However, the one key difference is that while the gladiators were forced to fight, college football players chose to compete.  The gladiators fought for the ultimate reward, the ability to live another day, while football players were not even paid.