Matt Chaney Guest Column: ‘Football Denial Stands Historical and Perpetual, California and Elsewhere’

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While we await a final ruling from the Alameda County Superior Court in our Public Records Act case motion against the University of California for release of 141 pages of Berkeley campus police files in the 2014 football conditioning death of Ted Agu, Concussion Inc. is pleased to present this guest column by Matt Chaney, a writer and consultant specializing in football historical debate and policymaking. Chaney’s books include Spiral of Denial: Muscle Doping in American Football. For more information, visit

I liken Chaney to Cassandra, the figure in Greek mythology who was cursed to utter prophecies no one believed. Here, Matt zeroes in on California and Bay Area contributions to the legacy of football carnage.




By Matt Chaney


A milestone hearing on football brutality occurred in 1905 but not at the White House in Washington, D.C., as legend purports.

President Theodore Roosevelt only feigned concern for players with his summit of gridiron “experts” that October. This was merely a confab of football advocates – three college coaches, a team doctor, a fan professor, and a fan president – who focused on game preservation, not player protection. It was a dog-and-pony show but millions hung on every account, primarily because Teddy Roosevelt and the experts said football could be saved.

Meanwhile, November 1905, a legitimate hearing on football went down on the West Coast, after death of a San Jose schoolboy rattled the region. This was a coroner’s inquest with sworn testimony of players, doctors and officials, adjourning on the jury’s call to protect youths: We recommend that the trustees and faculties of the public schools use their efforts to discourage football playing, which is both dangerous and demoralizing in its effects.

But that message was hardly picked up by newspapers outside the Bay Area, and many locals didn’t want to read it, either. The Roosevelt theory was popular from East to West, claiming “safe and sane” football was possible through rule changes and enforcement. Collision sport itself wasn’t the problem, Teddy said, just lousy referees and malicious players.

Wishing away the inherent dangers of football, denying connection to predictable tragedies – it all rings familiar now in the case of Ted Agu, Cal-Berkeley player killed of exertional sickling under lunatic coaching in 2014. Responses of university officials have been deplorable to date, with traditional news outlets a joke in their coverage, or lack of.

The football spiral of denial was likewise routine a century ago, particularly in northern California, where the blood sport defied gravity of ethics and law for decades, already.

Rugby School football, of the famed English prep academy, took root at San Francisco and Oakland during the 1870s. Young males flocked to play collision “foot ball” and more people relished watching it, for thrilling runs and collisions. Teams were organized by athletic clubs, colleges and schools, filling the urban zone and spreading outward to Berkeley and Alameda, among towns.

Churches, organizations and newspapers supported the new football, so exciting above mere soccer “kicking,” and quite the social event! Among sights, football news stories and illustrations always publicized “beauties” in attendance, female adornment for the blood sport, effectively recruiting males to play and watch. Newspapers added readers and advertisers through coverage of tackle football.

Muscular Christians of the YMCA were passionate advocates, especially for Americanized football of the 1880s that established blocking and a line of scrimmage between opposing teams. Muscular Christians, like Harvard student Teddy Roosevelt, proclaimed manly football saved boys from pool rooms, dance halls and effeminate behavior. Roosevelt himself did not play football in college, choosing fervent fandom instead. Students like Roosevelt lauded campus officials who supported football, and burned effigies of those favoring abolishment.

Football advocates said body and head blows instilled toughness and character for young males, strengthening them generally, harming very few.

But American journalists were reporting injuries nationwide. Stressful collision football certainly maimed and killed excessively, as British doctors warned, with lethal outcomes ranging from brain trauma to cardiac arrest.

In 1882 a football audience in San Francisco, largely female, witnessed player casualties that belied any “healthfulness of the pastime.” Although none died, “opinion of the numerous spectators was strongly unfavorable to the game as played under the Rugby rules,” reported the Chronicle. But football crowds kept coming, educators and newsmen kept cheerleading, and the inevitable local fatality occurred in 1886.

Law student M.E. Woodward fractured his spine in during practice at the state university in Berkeley. No medical treatment existed to save Woodward, paralyzed waist-down, and he died within days. The California Football League blamed dangerous tackling, instituted a new rule, and gridiron glorification continued.

Bay Area newspapers gushed over the presence of Walter Camp, “Father of Football,” who escaped Connecticut winters for Palo Alto beginning in 1892. Camp was the former Yale player capitalizing on multi revenue streams from football, including as athletic director, coaching consultant, rulemaker, game referee, equipment designer, sportswriter and children’s author. David Starr Jordan, president of Leland Stanford University, hired Camp to coach the football team each December for a few years.

Back East, Camp was embroiled in the football issue of brain impacts without remedy, particularly for his conflicting interests. He’d written anti-butting policy as rule-making chief then absorbed ridicule as field referee, having to ignore elemental ramming and headshots of forward-colliding. By 1890 the term “butting” disappeared from football rulebooks edited by Camp, published by associates at Spalding Company. Camp promoted “tackling low” with eyes up, keeping head from harm’s way.

The technique was often impossible amidst frenetic action and hits of football. Players blocked and tackled by whatever means necessary, seeking force and leverage, and ramming served the mission best, striking with upper torso and head.

“The head or skull of a contestant is quite frequently called into service, as butting during scrimmages is not uncommon,” reported M.J. Geary of the San Francisco Call, observing Walter Camp at a Stanford practice. The famed safe-tackling expert watched from sideline, apparently unconcerned.

Geary talked to a player who affirmed eyesight was correct: Collision football required head-knocking, indeed, particularly for “butting the center” of scrimmage line, where “men bang against each other,” the player said.

Camp, commenting in follow-up, acknowledged football produced “a hard knock once in a while” but insisted brutal play was in the past, except perhaps for isolated locales. “Everything depends on the training,” Camp said. “A well-trained and practiced football player rarely gets hurt.”

“The danger to football players, properly trained and padded, is very small under the rules now governing intercollegiate games.”

Camp was proven wrong, of course, again and again, as American football negotiated repetitive crisis and “reform” phases until 1905. Educators of California were challenged, too, trying to deal with violent sport entrenched as local tradition.

By then football casualties appeared regularly in news, including death reports from schools and colleges in California. Untold players suffered debilitating injuries such as “concussion of the brain.” California parents of mentally disturbed youths blamed football trauma, backed by doctors.

A rich medical literature on TBI and disease was available from Britain and America, analysis dating back centuries but accumulating rapidly in the Industrial Age.

Brain-injury victims were plentiful for clinical studies, produced by railroad accidents, warfare and contact sports, football especially. Microscopic autopsy identified brain damage in trauma victims; pathologists found cerebral lesions comparable to melted fuses of an electrical system.

Dr. F.C. Armstrong, Brooklyn football coach and MD, concluded tackling must be conducted with “head thrown to one side” – speaking in 1899.

Patent leather helmets were touted to prevent brain trauma, and Walter Camp marketed a rubber air-cushioned model with his Spalding buddies.

Football critics weren’t swayed in condemning field violence, and debate raged in California, November 1905, after San Jose schoolboy Clarence Von Bokkelen died of brain bleeding. Rumor alleged opposing players kicked and punched the victim, but evidence established only that Von Bokkelen was targeted for hard tackling, as his team’s best player. Head-butting likely caused his death, witnesses testified under oath.

Several schools and colleges canceled football games for the season, threatening permanent abolishment without reform of the game. Stanford president David Starr Jordan said football was too hazardous for schoolboys, seemingly in step with recommendation of the Bokkelen jury, but he endorsed rugby as healthy replacement. Jordan mandated dissolution of football at Stanford and recommended rugby for all California colleges.

But new rules for “safer football” were ratified, said to foster “open play” and strict enforcement against “unnecessary roughness.” A new committee was in charge, to become known as the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

With tempest abated, schools and colleges continued football nationwide, although new rules merely encouraged open-field colliding at higher speeds. Reported casualties only increased but Football America didn’t care, anyway, not really. Stanford officials re-sanctioned the game, on demand of students and alumni.

The cycle of football calamity, crisis and denial would only continue, for California and the nation at-large, into the next century at least.


For further information regarding this article, including references and bibliography, see the following:

Chaney, M. (2016, Dec 21). ‘Safe Football’ Failed in 1880s, Talking Points Lived On.

Chaney, M. (2016, Aug 13). Youth Football Lineage and Debate: Pre-1900 News Line.

Chaney, M. (2016, May 11). ‘Heads Up’ Theory, Football Helmets and Brain Disease, 1883-1962.

Chaney, M. (2016, Mar 22). Denial of Brain Damage in Boxing:1928-1960.

Chaney, M. (2016, Jan 30). 1900-1912: ‘First Concussion Crisis’ for Beloved Football.

Chaney, M. (2015, July 28). The 1890s: Brain risks Confirmed in American Football.

Chaney, M. (2015, Jan 31). Football Officials Alerted to Brain Damage, Concussion-80 Years Ago.

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Concussion Inc. - Author Irvin Muchnick