Matt Chaney on Football’s New Rules and Better Helmets … in 1903

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With the imminent release of the movie Concussion, we are pleased to present a bonus guest article by Matt Chaney, the leading historian of football’s history of harm and cyclical responses to concerns about it. Chaney is the author of Spiral of Denial: Muscle Doping in American Football. This article is part of an ongoing series at


Brain Injury in American Football: 130 Years of Knowledge and Denial

1900-1916: ‘Concussion Crisis’ Strikes Beloved Sport

Part Two in A Series

Preview passage from installment pending at


by Matt Chaney


1903: Football Officials Tout New Rules, Better Helmets

As the injurious 1902 football season concluded in America, public drumbeat resumed for reforming the blood sport. Critics charged the Intercollegiate Football Association with failure to end brutality and “mass play,” once again, despite a rules overhaul eight years before.

The St. Louis Republic declared the IFA rules committee must redesign football to be “more open, more agile, more spectacular, and, above all, a less dangerous occupation for the youth of this country. For many seasons the cry of the general public has been for a game where there was more open work, that is, more passing, kicking, and playing in the broken field.”

Vanguards of gridiron status quo held their ground. They defended football as-is and particularly the standing rules encouraging mass formations, such as a first down for advancing five yards and penalties against forward passing and quarterback runs. Known as football “conservatives”—with Walter Camp of Yale as leader—these conventionalists blamed the game’s existing element of open play for terrible injuries, leading faster body speeds to cause fiercer collisions.

Players faced less risk when “bunched in scrimmages,” remarked Julian Curtis, a designer of football helmets and managing partner for A.G. Spalding athletic equipment in New York City. “Those who are clamoring for more open play should bear in mind that there are more injuries due to plays made in the open than in-close and line plays. There is no time in a game when the hearts of the spectators are more in their mouths for fear of a man will be hurt than when a player has caught a punt and starts to run it back.”

Curtiss, equipment magnate, was a former Yale football player who promoted his alma mater’s big games in New York with Harvard and Princeton, attracting enormous crowds and underwriting lucrative profit for grid “associations” at each university. Curtis told a New York writer that 30,000 paying customers for a game “strikes me as pretty good evidence that the present style of play is what the spectators like to see.”

Spalding sponsored the annual football rulebook written by Camp, an old friend of Curtiss in New Haven, among commercial relationships the company enjoyed with the sport icon and his Yale athletic association.

Most significantly for business relations, Camp remained in charge of the national rules committee, which he credited for “opening up” football well enough. Camp joined Curtiss in contending most fans and players still preferred mass play, upon which the predominant Yale football program was structured, and that the open format heightened risk. In Camp’s lengthy statement disseminated by newspapers, introducing him as “the eminent authority” of football, he wrote:


Just at this time is transpiring one of the periodically occurring movements against the game as it stands. Football, wherever played, has always been a subject for critics. For the most part of late years they determine that the game [would be] a good game if the rules were only made right. Some go so far as to desire the abolishment of the game, but in spite of that the game has lived. …

Changes are not advocated now solely for the sake of avoiding injury, but rather in order to make the game more interesting to spectators. … The main outcry against the present game is that people do not see the ball enough and that the runs are simply pushes of two or three yards at a time and effected by a group of men. …

There is no doubt that the men who are most interested in the sport of football are especially desirous of seeing it kept up to its present interest, both to player and spectator; that as far as possible the liability of injury be eliminated; and, finally, that the ethos of the game be kept as high as possible.


In February 1903, Camp discussed football risk, manhood and ethic for his address of the Yale Club in Chicago. Football was also drawing blame for gambling among college students.

“There is no increase in the so-called evils of football,” Camp reassured Yale alumni and boosters, as quoted in news. Gambling on campus, he argued, was modeled after beloved poker games and more ventures of chance, like lotteries to fund construction of churches and university buildings.

“Then they want the dangers eliminated from football,” Camp said. “We, perhaps, might amend the rules so that the boys might not be hurt but is it doubtful whether the boys would get as much out of the sport. You cannot eliminate danger from the life of a boy from the time he gets his first knife or falls out of a cherry tree until he gets to play golf.”

Camp indicated rule-makers felt besieged by complaints while lacking fresh ideas for football safety. “It would be agreeable to schoolmasters and parents, probably, if we could devise sports which would not contain any elements of danger, but it cannot be done. If it could, it would please many people who write us, asking us to eliminate all danger from sports.”

Technology had already failed to reduce football’s most devastating risk, brain trauma, through a stream of unsuccessful “headgear” models produced by game officials. For years trainers and coaches had designed helmets they claimed would prevent “concussion of the brain” ranging from headaches to hemorrhaging, along with skull fracture.

Trainers and coaches controlled the boom business of football equipment and outfitting, in concert with associates like Curtiss at Spalding, and while they aimed to protect players, the head armor often spurred vicious colliding. A player felt safe in a helmet but also emboldened to hit head-on or absorb blows above the neck, particularly for gaining speed and forward leverage in open field, where ramming was natural, necessary.

During the 1890s, the development of effective anti-TBI material proved elusive. Early headgear or “harness” included rubber and cowhide forms for injured players at Princeton and Kansas, but resulted in no protection. Then sole leather helmets proliferated, hard as a boot bottom, and inspired controversy.

In 1900 the influential Yale coaches denounced “heavy leather helmets which are now worn by nearly all the players, especially the [defensive] end rushers,” a reporter wrote from New Haven. “The ends dive headlong at the [offensive] backs… Cook, Sharp and Hale, the three most powerful backs at Yale, are out of the game at present, largely because of injuries received in this way.”

It was likely Camp who channeled the following message for football at-large, through the news writer: “There is no rule forbidding… the leather helmets, but Yale men would favor a new football rule making it illegal to wear that article of football armor.” Left unsaid was Camp’s buddy at Spalding equipment, Yale alumnus Julian Curtiss, whose pet project was a “pneumatic” football helmet.

Another newspaper story head-lined Yale in its “crusade” against leather headgear, with support from the University of Pennsylvania. The report also dropped the unattributed assertion that “a good pneumatic headpiece distributes the force of a blow over the entire head instead of centering it on one spot.”

“Princeton coaches, on the other hand, favor all kinds of helmets,” the report continued. “They argue that headpieces are necessary because the injuries to the head are generally of a far more lasting and serious nature than those received in other parts of the body.”

Trainers announced new leather designs at the universities of Illinois and Michigan, and more joined the engineering race for a bona fide protective football helmet—and riches. “The gear that has caused the most experiment and thought is that for the head,” a reporter declared from the Midwest in 1901.

But no one produced the dream helmet and brain trauma continued unabated in field collisions.

Officials debated potential policy on headgear and other equipment through the tempestuous football season of 1902. Mass play preoccupied critics, and at that point the football rule-makers, or Camp, determined time was right for blaming injuries on “heavy leather” helmets. So the headgear problem made news again.

Upcoming rules meetings would involve “a determined crusade against the armor-bearing tendencies of the game,” a report announced on Jan. 4, 1903, citing anonymous inside information: “Perhaps the worst phase of the armor question is the subject of hard leather.”

A helmet encouraged a player to “literally ram his opponent,” the text stated, continuing:


When these are tied on there is a dome-shaped skull covering as hard as steel… The climax came during last season, when a prominent supporter of the game came across a New England schoolboy who had a [sole leather] helmet shaped to a point; a dull one, but a point, nevertheless. Then the gravity of the situation came home to the observer, who is a member of the Rules Committee, and it is safe to predict that there will be some strenuous reform urged at the next meeting.


The committee finalized rule revisions by summertime. Camp led officials in announcing “less dangerous” and exciting football for the 1903 season.

Fans could soon compare mass play and open play since the game field had been divided into zones for both. The mass-play format stood intact from each 25-yard mark to goal line, allowing momentum formations and push-pull assistance for a ball-carrier.

In the open zone, 50 yards in midfield set between the 25-yard marks, the quarterback was allowed forward ball-carrying if he crossed scrimmage minimally five yards either side of the center snap. Likewise in the open zone, seven men were required on the line for each snap. The committee did not address forward passing, possibly a concept for future consideration.

Additionally, the rule-makers acted on headgear and body padding, banning sole leather. Soft leather remained sanctioned by rules, and Spalding’s Julian Curtiss stood poised to fill the helmet vacuum with his air-cushioned model featuring a pneumatic crown.

Most opportune for Spalding in the football preseason—and entirely set up—the company was able to release its sponsored press run of college rulebooks in step with advertising and news plants touting its new legal helmet. This business synergy of rule-making and equipment marketing was no coincidence, but merely arranged between Camp and Curtiss, according to historical news, Camp papers, and modern analysts.

“When necessary, Curtiss had no qualms about asking Camp’s predictions on rule changes that might affect Spalding equipment such as the ‘head harness,’ ” Stephen Hardy wrote for his essay Entrepreneurs, Structures, and the Sportgeist.

“Spalding executive Julian Curtiss found his friendship with Camp beneficial when it came to selling his expanding equipment lines,” author Julie Des Jardins observed in her book Walter Camp, continuing:


When [Curtiss] developed a new shin guard, for instance, he showed it to his friend to make sure it conformed to Rule Three, Section Three of the football code, which forbade the wearing of “projecting, metallic, or hard substances.” Spalding held off on production of [pneumatic] head harnesses in 1902 until Camp could influence legislation on protective headgear. The sporting goods company marketed to casual players and high school leagues too, since many of them conformed to IFA guidelines and looked to the college game for guidance. In return, Camp was able to outfit Yale athletes at a discounted rate, and Curtiss offered him first dibs on the newest golf equipment, his-and-her bicycles, and skates and sleds for the kids.


Another football figure at Yale was not beholden to Curtiss, however, especially in open competition for developing the anti-TBI helmet, holy grail of football equipment.

Mike Murphy, Yale’s famed athletic trainer and coach prone to switching jobs for better opportunity, including multiple stints with Camp at New Haven, focused his skill for equipment design entirely on football headgear in August 1903. And Murphy would not commit to Yale’s employing the new Spalding piece.

“Every one of us interested in football is trying to solve the problem…,” Murphy told a reporter, “and get something pliable and yet which will offer sufficient protection to the men. There ought to be, under the circumstances, a good assortment of headgear from which to select just the one we need.” Murphy saw promise in a few materials.  “Felt is a good protector and is not too hard to use. Rubber heads may be tried.”

But Spalding’s promotional blitz was rolling, drowning voices like Murphy, and “pneumatic” headgear was sudden buzzword of the game. Teams were already receiving Spalding deliveries from Cornell University in New York to Drury College in Missouri.

Rules czar Camp regularly mentioned the Spalding design. “The heavy sole leather helmet will probably be replaced by soft leather with pneumatic cushions with padding running around the top,” Camp wrote for a piece appearing in newspapers nationwide.

The popular press chimed in approvingly, unquestioningly. “The most important device is for keeping the brains of the football player from spilling over the field of battle at inopportune times,” a columnist opined, introducing Spalding. “This wonderfully constructed machine is pneumatic.”

Newspaper editors reprinted Spalding releases verbatim. A nationally publicized item stated:


The rules committee… passed a rule that if head protectors were worn they should no longer be made of sole leather, papier mache or other hard and unyielding material, and all other devices for protectors must be so arranged and padded as, in the opinion of the umpire, to be without danger to other players.

To conform to this rule Spalding’s pneumatic head harness has been designed and it is certainly one of the greatest improvements in the players’ equipment… a pneumatic crown sufficient to afford absolute protection. Ventilation is provided through heavy felt. Many trainers and players from leading colleges have examined this head harness and give it their unqualified approval.


After football reform and conflicts of interest, the games began in late September, and field action drew scrutiny for the promises of rule-makers and associates.

They drew praise for enhancing the entertainment factor. An uptick in the open style was observable, according to reviews, and media celebrated scoring when major universities unloaded on smaller schools.

After Michigan won 79-0 over Beloit, the little college lost worse next week at Wisconsin, 87-0, and the headlines lit up newspapers and magazines. “BELOIT IS SNOWED UNDER” and “Crowd Goes Wild,” heralded a Chicago Tribune report from the Badger State, continuing:


Madison, Wis., Oct. 17—(Special)—Wisconsin went Michigan one touchdown better here today, defeating Beloit by a score of 87 to 0. The speed and team work shown by Wisconsin came as a big surprise to the most enthusiastic admirers, and hopes for a championship team are high in Madison tonight.

Bain made the first touchdown off tackle after one-and-a-half minutes’ play. Line bucks for short, steady gains carried the ball over the second score, and then end runs and line smashes were alternated in rapid succession until the [visiting] Congregationalists were literally swept off their feet. …

The crowd of 1,200 rooters early in the second half began calling for a score of 80, [and] when that point was reached their enthusiasm was without bounds.


A famed sports columnist found mixed results in retreaded football, Ralph D. Paine of The Illustrated Sporting News, who wrote:


The “new football rules”… are deserving of commendation in certain ways, after actual test on a hundred fields in the first month of the season. It has been already demonstrated, however, that they are not revolutionary, that they are hardly to be called sensational, and that football is the “same old game.” …

As for the spectator, it is true that the play is more easily followed than formerly. In midfield, from the average point of vantage, it is possible to see who takes the ball from the quarterback, whither the run is directed, and to follow the runner until he is tackled. This is a distinct gain over the old-style scrimmage [conducted from 25-yard lines to goal lines] where, except when the ball is kicked or fumbled, the onlooker cannot tell whether there is a football, no ball, or an old high hat, as the bone of furious contention.


For less violence, proposed  injury reduction, Paine saw no evidence. “Reports of rough play are as frequent as they were last year,” he surmised.

New helmet policy and complementary product had no apparent effect. The soft pneumatic headgear accomplished sales but nothing else beyond a curious appearance, strapped like a “beehive” atop a player.

And while a  written rule banned heavy leather from college football, real-time enforcement was problematic, especially for inspecting the array of helmets, homemade and manufactured, brought onto game fields. Responsibility remained with umpires for weeding out illicit equipment, any type, and allegations of incompetence persisted.

Some coaches swore off all headgear as dangerous, trying to expunge it from their programs, including Fielding Yost at Michigan and A.A. Stagg at the University of Chicago.

“Concussion” casualties remained common of football news from all levels, sandlot, school, club and college. Multiple cases were reported on teams like Stagg’s, compelling him to reissue headgear for brain-injured players. The Chicago Daily News reported:


Kirby, the short, stocky little halfback, is forced to adopt the helmet. He had his head severely bruised in one of the early scrimmages and later received a jolt in one of the practice games which put him out of the contest. …

It may be that [Stagg’s] hasty discarding of almost all protective armor will prove premature, and that the Maroons will be forced to take up again the shin guards, nose guards and helmets, which they have thrown away.


So-called head protection, rigid or otherwise, did not shield a school team in Kansas. During a game at Leavenworth, the players of Olathe High were “trampled on, kicked, and rubbed in the dirt,” according to The Leavenworth Times, which detailed TBI incidents on the field and followup treatment:


No one used to the clean kind of foot ball being put up by the local team would have anticipated the serious accidents which befell three of the Olathe players in yesterday’s game. Captain Harland Lanter, left guard, and Fred Hill, left half-back, were carried from the field unconscious and George Russell, right half, was early disabled by a sprained ankle. Of the three accidents Lanter’s was the most serious.

After twenty minutes’ play in the first half Olathe, realizing the futility of her efforts to crush the heavy Leavenworth line, fell back on the third down and punted. As the team swept down the field those on the side lines saw Lanter, standing in his tracks, grasp convulsively at his headgear and then fall. When persons from the side lines ran to him he was losing consciousness and lapsed into a… state in which he walked about the field and even played out the half before his men were brought to a realization of the fact that his injuries were of a dangerous nature.

He was taken from the field at the end of the half. Though still able to walk he knew nothing of his surroundings. Taken to the grand stand and wrapped in blankets he soon lost consciousness entirely. Only after he had been taken to the Imperial hotel in an ambulance did he regain reason. He was unconscious for two hours. …

Lanter was immediately taken care of by Drs. Suwalski, Shoyer and Lane, who were spectators at the game. A careful examination at the hotel last evening showed that Lanter had received a severe shock near the base of the brain on the left side. He told that he had been injured in the same spot at Fort Scott a year ago and he was not surprised at a recurrence. Hill’s injury resulted from falling and striking his forehead violently.

In both cases slight concussions of the brain resulted. Hill was able to leave town on the 6:30 o’clock [train] last evening but Lanter is still in this city in charge of his coach. It was thought advisable for him to rest after the shock before he undertook a journey.


Football death numbers compiled from news accounts, however faulty, suggested no decrease on the playing fields in 1903. The reports, with differing fatality totals, began appearing at season’s end around Thanksgiving.

A Philadelphia news group announced at least 17 deaths from football, noting the actual number, impossible to determine, “probably would far exceed this number.” The American Medical Association corroborated in analysis published by JAMA.

“During the football season just passed, 35 deaths occurred and over 500 severe accidents happened to players of football,” a report stated. “How many of those suffering from severe accidents died afterward cannot be ascertained, but, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association, the number cannot be less than 50.”

The Atlanta Constitution commented as though topic were warfare: “The old question as to whether football is worth the while is being seriously discussed all over the country again just as another football season has come to an end, and people are beginning to figure up the losses of the season in killed and wounded.”

1905: Football Crisis Explodes on Presidential Intervention

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Concussion Inc. - Author Irvin Muchnick