At the turn of the 20th century, critics of football said it was as violent and deadly as Roman gladiatorial combat. The debate over the game’s merits raged among “Ivy League university presidents, Progressive Era reformers, muckraking journalists and politicians,” Smithsonian reports.
But there was at least one prominent defender of the game: Teddy Roosevelt, who began appreciating football as a student at Harvard in 1876. Football required, he wrote, “the greatest exercise of fine moral qualities, such as resolution, courage, endurance, and capacity to hold one’s own and stand up under punishment.”
However, “as football-related casualties increased, even Roosevelt recognized that the game would have to be changed in order to be preserved,” Smithsonian writes. “In 1905, the fourth year of his presidency, 18 players died and 159 suffered severe injuries.”
Roosevelt held a football summit at the White House. A few months later, 62 institutions became charter members of what became the National Collegiate Athletic Association. The association rewrote the rules of the sport, “jump-starting football’s evolution toward its modern form” and making it less dangerous.