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History Learnin': The Aftermath of Tragedy

Welcome back to our own little private History Learnin' classroom. Have a seat, why don't you? Please remember that there is no gum chewing or sticking-your-tongue-to-the-flagpole allowed. Thank you.

On Sunday, I paid tribute to Rosalind Burns Gammon, the mother from Rome who saved Georgia football, and who in my mind is the mother of Georgia football. Her son, Von Gammon, tragically died as a result of on-field injuries in the 1897 Georgia/Virginia game, and her actions in his name literally preserved the sport of football at every institution in the state of Georgia.

It is not possible, however, to fully discuss the Von Gammon tragedy in just one post. As a result, I will be reviewing the media backlash and aftermath of Gammon's death on the game in this story. I will also have another follow-up posting on Thursday discussing the general state of college athletics (not just football) in 1897, primarily because I love how it illustrates that some things just never change in the world.

So... let's get to it! Mr. Bissinger, you have the stage:

The following editorial was published in The Macon Telegraph on November 21, 1897. (This was 3 days after the Georgia Senate had voted 31-4 to outlaw football in the state, sending the bill to the Governor for his signature.)

As usual, my additions and comments are in italics. I have also bolded a few passages, which I will refer to in my analysis after the article.

----------------- (Begin Article) ------------------

The Surgeons and Football.

The Medical Record, one of the most responsible medical journals in the country, takes up the case of young Von Gammon killed in a game of football in Atlanta, and because of whose death a bill, interesting to all college students, is now pending before the Georgia general assembly, and says: (Holy run-on sentence, Batman.)

"The lamentable death of the Georgia student Gammon as a result of injuries received in a game of football has occasioned the passage of a bill by the house of representatives of Georgia, making it a misdemeanor to engage in the game when matches have been arranged or gate money has been demanded. The overwhelming majority vote of the lower house makes it quite probable that the senate will endorse the action and the bill will become a law. If this be the case, Georgia will set a laudable example for every commonwealth of the country. The time certainly has come when such a general movement is necessary.

"In view of the great number of serious accidents on the football field between college teams, it is impossible any longer to view the game in the light of innocent recreative amusement with harmless and healthful athletics as its object. Although so called slugging has been ruled out in the new game, (Slugging? Like boxing-football? Interesting.) there is still left enough of brutal muscular force to make the alleged sport productive of the greatest variety of surgical injuries to every part of the body. In fact, there is hardly a game played in which some one of the contestants is not more or less seriously hurt. Only the severer injuries are noted, while the lesser ones serve as enlivening incidents to call forth the plaudits of an excited audience. Short of actual death on the field, not much account is taken of the hundreds of young men who are oftentimes injured for life as a result of the rough and tumble methods of the match. The trainers explain the number of injuries by the lack of requisite physical preparation for the contest, but, in reality, the more the footballers are trained, the more dangerous becomes the game.

"It is certainly time we should look the matter squarely in the face. If we wish to develop pluck, courage, endurance, and strength, we can do so in more healthful and safer ways. It is time that the new game, with mere weight against weight, should be abolished."

The foregoing is printed in the New York Evening Post which says:

"The most weighty deliverance that this fall's discussion of football has called forth is the article from the Medical Record, which we reprint. The Record is a conservative medical journal of the highest standing, which speaks with authority on the subject of physical training, and its words must have great influence with people who keep their heads steady in the whirl of excitement that comes with the ending of the season. The Record holds that the game as now played ought not to be allowed, on the ground that it can no longer be viewed in the light of innocent recreative amusement, with harmless and healthful athletics as its object; but that, even with 'slugging' ruled out, it is 'productive of the greatest variety of surgical injuries to every part of the body,' and that the effect of such injuries is life long in a large proportion of cases. This is a phase of the subject which is seldom regarded except by the medical profession. Unless a player is so badly hurt that he cannot enter the field again during the season, the injury is generally dismissed by both the young man himself and the public as a mere trifle, while really he may suffer the effects always, and more severely as he passes on from middle life into old age. 'No, I do not allow my son to play football,' recently remarked an experienced surgeon of this city (that would be NYC), who has a son in college and who is a hearty believer in college athletics rightly conducted. 'I have had in my practice too many cases of water on the knee and other such really serious injuries, which players treat as of no account, to be willing to have my boy run the great risk of a hurt that he will never get over.' "

The Telegraph took exactly this position in the discussion of the death of Von Gammon. The Georgia legislature should really not have to intervene in this matter. The game as a college sport should be abandoned by common consent of the students themselves. Even if Governor Atkinson should feel constrained to veto the bill, the game ought to be ruled out on the very grounds that the Medical Record presents, unless it is possible to so modify the rules that the chances of permanent physical injury shall be minimized. We doubt if this can be done and the present popular interest in the game can be preserved--a popular interest which is not based, by the way, upon true sportsmanlike instincts. (emphasis mine) Any game which depends so much upon the impact of physical "weight against weight" is not really a good game.

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Ladies and Gentlemen, there you have it... the Buzz Bissinger "ban college football" article of 1897. The common elements are all there:

- Claims that at least one player is maimed for life during every single football game that is played.
- A quote from a "concerned parent" in a notable position saying that they would never let their little snowflake child participate in mean old college football.
- And, most importantly, an implication that fans of the sport are barbarians and troglodytes.

I do not doubt that the game as it was played back then inherently carried dangers of injury, as it still does today. And, in fact, rule changes were implemented to make college football safer as a result of this and similar incidents around the country.

Charles Herty, the father of Georgia football and its first head coach, was personally involved with this effort, as the following article from The Athens Banner on December 24, 1897, points out:

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Southern Colleges will Frame New Rules




This Was Decided Upon at the Meeting of the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association at Birmingham Sunday Evening.


Birmingham, Ala, Dec. 20. --The meeting of the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association here Saturday resulted in steps being taken to greatly modify the game of football in the South.

Hereafter a player going from one college to another will not be allowed to play until he has been one year at that college, and no one can play who does not matriculate within thirty days of the opening of the session.

Now as to the rules for the playing of football in the Southern colleges making up this association.

The most important discussion of the meeting commenced here. Football rules for the coming year discussed. The president suggested modifications. (That's real detailed, Mr. Journalism. Thanks a lot.) He spoke of the success of the time limit and penalty rules which had been adopted last year. Professor Taylor also spoke on the subject of the success of the two rules named.

Dr. Herty took the floor and stated that he was instructed by his association to bring up the matter looking for some modification in football rules. No details were given him, but the expression was in favor of substantial modifications. He spoke of the unfortunate accident on the field in Atlanta, and stated that the report of rough playing was unfounded. He said it was an accident altogether; that the young man was lifted entirely off his feet and landed on his head. He was not in condition at the start to go into the game. The accident stirred up much sentiment in the state, and immediately the legislature passed an anti-football law. The governor of Georgia, however, with his usual characteristic nerve, vetoed the bill. He told of the attempt to pass the bill over the governor's veto. He said that the game was injured in Georgia, and especially at Emory college, and that the trustees of the University would discuss the matter in June.

Consequently, he was of the opinion that what was done today would be of vast importance to the success of the association. He did not believe in following after northern or eastern colleges in making rules, but to take care of the association. He suggested that a committee of five be appointed, whose duty shall be to meet on March 1st, after receiving suggestions as to rules from all the colleges in the south and from others interested in the movement, and that they shall adopt rules to modify present rules. The action of the committee to be final. The rules of next year should discountenance premium for weight and equalize weight, skill, and work so that lighter men with skill will have an equal show.

The following is the committee appointed to draw up a set of football rules for the Intercollegiate Athletic Association that would eliminate the rough features of the game:

C. H. Herty, Athens, Ga.; M.G. Johnston, of Sewanee; John Lombard, of New Orleans; C.H. Ross, of Auburn; W.L. Dudley, of Nashville.

The committee will select an advisory committee of five football experts and both committees will meet at some central location about the 20th of March to adopt suitable rules.

(The article continues with non-football related news.)

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Sadly, it is difficult to pin down the actual exact rule changes that were made by the SIAA at that March, 1898, meeting, in spite of performing a significant amount of research into the issue. (There was no national governing body at that time, and each regional conference had their own set of rules, which were largely similar but not identical, particularly relating to eligibility concerns. I will not go into that aspect of the debate, however, which was one of the primary reasons the Southern Conference split from the SIAA in later years).

I have found the following publication, however, from Outing magazine from November, 1898 that describes the changes made to the game's rules over the past year. I know most of it is applicable to the SIAA's rule changes, though I can't vouch for all of them.

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PERHAPS the most important of the changes in the intercollegiate football rules since last year is that in the method of scoring. It was found so easy to kick goals from touchdowns that the proportionate value of the two points given for the goal and four for the touchdown was not reasonable, and the figures were altered so that now a touchdown counts five points, and the goal after it adds only one more point to the score. A goal kicked from the field still counts five points, and thus has the same value as a touchdown, while the safety still remains at two points for the opponents.

(skipping down)

Many of the recent changes in the rules have been intended to keep the player from getting off-side, to prevent unnecessary roughness and to limit mass plays. The "flying wedge" was followed by other "momentum mass plays" that sought to gain ground through the sheer force of the combined weight of a team thrown at one spot of the opposing line. These plays were stopped by prohibiting any player from being in motion at the time the ball was snapped back. Then, when the teams still drew their linemen back for wedges, but did not start them till after the ball was put in play, it was ruled that there must always be at least five men on the scrimmage line.

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The article I have excerpted above is actually filled with fascinating detailed examples of formations and plays that both had been made illegal and which were still legal at the time. The link to the Google digital version of the magazine is here, and the article in question is on pages 197-200. It also includes some pretty cool photos of the 1898 Yale football team at practice, and there is a short blurb about the SIAA on page 205. (It didn't really discuss anything new that was relevant to this article, so I haven't quoted it here.) Check it out if you have plenty of time to waste getting lost in reading about football in 1898. :-)

In my opinion, the net of all this discussion should be a warning against the dangers of overreacting in the heat of the moment to a football tragedy. There is no question that football is a game with inherent dangers. There were dangers present in 1897, and there are dangers present in 2012. That doesn't mean we need to abolish the game, however.

Football has evolved over the years, both with rule changes and with new technologies that are designed to better protect players from hits. And as the serious long-term impact of things like concussions have been discovered in the past, schools have even taken it upon themselves to get ahead of the curve and preemptively sideline players until they are completely cleared by doctors to play again.

Football should not be abolished. Instead, it should be tweaked to be made safer, as it has been continually throughout the years, and undoubtedly will continue to be in the future.

That's it for today... I'll be back on Thursday with some non-football-related Georgia athletics History learnin'!

Go Dawgs!