1905 – A United States President decides the fate of lacrosse in favor of football

In 1905 an opportunity appeared that many lacrosse enthusiast had been waiting for, an chance to replace football as America’s sport. In 1905 there were 18 deaths and nearly 150 injuries in football. Colleges were disgusted with students being injured and in some cases dying on the football field.

President's son Ted was injured at Harvard in 1905 and had to be carried off the field.

President Roosevelt’s son Ted was injured playing football at Harvard in 1905, and had to be carried off the field. (Chicago Tribune 1905)

The President of the Minnesota Agricultural College, Dean Liggett, offered up one of the first solutions, “play lacrosse”. Minnesota had a history of championship lacrosse in town since 1884 and recently won several Northwestern Lacrosse League championships.

Minneapolis Journal, March 20, 1906

Minneapolis Journal, March 20, 1906

A board meeting of the Big 9, not quite yet the Big Ten, wanted to kick out football  from the conference.

Cartoon showing the Big 9 conference kicking out football

Cartoon showing the Big 9 conference kicking out football

Seeing this turn of opinion on his favorite sport, President Theodore Roosevelt called a meeting of educators from Harvard, Yale, and Princeton to come up with a solution. Roosevelt was a huge football fan, but seeing his own son carried off the field made the issue personal. He needed to save the sport.

Washington Post October 10, 1905

Washington Post October 10, 1905

The President had specific items he wanted to see changed in the game. This committee came out with three major rule changes for the 1906 season.

  1. Formal line of scrimmage
  2. First down moved to 10 yards, no longer 5 yards.
  3. Allow a new concept, the forward pass.

For rule one, a line of scrimmage, the problem was players would bunch before the snap to protect the runner by making a wedge. Putting the players in a line would create more one on one battles.

Football had no line of scrimmage in 1905.

Football had no line of scrimmage in 1905.

The second change was to make rugby like scrums a thing of the past by making a team travel 10 yards to get a first down, not just 5.

The third and final rule change saved the game. A forward pass. Wait. Now where did that idea come from? Only one other team sport allowed you to pass the ball over the defense. No it was not soccer, rugby,  or even hockey. It was lacrosse. Since the beginning when the First Nations played, and even when Dr. Beers wrote the first rules, the forward pass was allowed. Seeing the excitement in lacrosse growing, even Walter Camp, who opposed the forward pass being allowed, had to give in and offered to give it try with major restrictions. Camp insisted you couldn’t score a touchdown with a pass in the end zone. Those restrictions were slowly removed as people saw the excitement of players running down field.

Even with these changes the door had been opened and all eyes turned to lacrosse to watch. But 1906, in the city of Chicago, yes we blame you Chicago, for bringing an end to the Midwest Lacrosse League. Which is a story for another blog.

Book and newspapers referenced.

Minneapolis Tribune
Chicago Tribune
Washington Post

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