Football Shaped by Military : Discovery News

The military played a major role in turning football from an elite college sport into an American pastime.


The military both popularized football and developed rules to make it safer.

During World War II, West Point's football team recruited athletes with the understanding that they could escape the draft.

War-speak pervades football, and military institutions use high school and college games as recruiting opportunities.

You might want to pause during this year's Super Bowl half-time show to give a nod to the military, which is closer to your Sunday night viewing experience than you probably realize.

The armed forces, according to recent research, played a major role in turning football from an elitist college sport into an American pastime.

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In the early 20th century, military institutions also helped popularize and develop regulations for the sport. And today, military influences linger in the language used to describe football strategy. As you watch, listen for phrases like "trench warfare" and "field generals." Even terms like "sacking" and "blitzing" have roots in war-speak.

"The study of the history of college football has frequently been focused on particular players and coaches and not on the country's interest in the game as a whole," said Paul Vasquez, a social scientist at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. "A lot of people don't realize how it has become the phenomenon it has, and how the military's role played a part in that story."

In its infancy, football was a violent sport that was played only at elite Northeastern colleges. After the first official college game, between Yale and Harvard in 1869, football began to spread westward and southward.

Football first met the armed forces in 1882, Vasquez reported in the journal Armed Forces & Society. That year, the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., adopted the sport as an important part of a military education. the United States Military Academy at West Point followed in 1890. Both institutions used football to keep cadets fit in and prepare them for the strategies of warfare.

The game proved popular. By 1892, according to Vasquez' research, football was played on at least 19 army bases across the country.

In those early years, military teams often played against college teams, and that occasionally caused problems. In 1894, for example, two separate games were scheduled to be played on Thanksgiving Day in Indiana, even though the tradition was for just the state's top two teams to play that day.

The president of Purdue University, which was slated for a Thanksgiving game against Depaw University, grew upset when he heard of Butler's scheduled game with the Indianapolis Light Artillery. So, he began sending letters to other college presidents expressing a number of complaints.

Among them, he suggested that maybe college teams should stop playing military teams -- not just because simultaneous games threatened ticket sales, but also because soldiers tended to be bigger, stronger and older than college students. He worried about both the safety of his players and the purity of the college game.

The group that met to address those concerns ended up forming the first collegiate athletic conference, now know as the "Big 10." The NCAA, likewise, emerged from concerns that the game was too violent and caused too many serious injuries and deaths. Captain Palmer Pierce, the coach of the West Point team, became the president of that institution, originally called the Inter Collegiate Athletic Association, which put regulations in place to make the game less brutal and bloody.

Major wars were important turning points in the popularization of the game. During World War I, football turned out to be a great diversion for soldiers, keeping them out of trouble during down times and helping build teamwork. With more men mobilized on military camps and bases, the number of people playing football rose. At the same time, a growing number of civilians gained exposure to football as they visited bases to watch games, and that helped create a national taste for the sport.

"The most striking thing to me was how, in World War I, the military helped democratize football," said Patricia Shields, a political scientist at Texas State University in San Marcos. "Back in the 1800s, there was a big division in class between people who went to college and people who didn't, and people who didn't go to college didn't necessarily care about college sports."

"As common people throughout the country began to understand the game -- and it's not that easy to understand, but you understand it by playing and enjoying it -- that made it more interesting," she added. "Who knows, maybe football wouldn't be what it is today without the military."

During World War II, West Point began to recruit athletes with the understanding that they would be exempt from the draft and could delay their service if they played on the football team. The hope for players was that the war would be over before their turns came, or at least that they could serve as officers instead of enlisted men.

Even in the thick of wartime in 1942, when nonessential travel was prohibited and many college games were canceled, the Army-Navy game took place, partly as a military morale-booster and partly as a recruitment tool.

In just a year or two after the Second World War, the number of teams playing intercollegiate football increased by 66 percent. The development of the GI Bill and athletic scholarships gave veterans the chance to boost the quality of college ball. And the professional game fed off of interest that started at the college level.

It was on military bases that the culture of football emerged, with military bands playing in the stands and all-male cheerleaders rooting for players. (Women began cheering when World War II took so many men away). Even today, the army and other branches of the military use top-level high school and college bowl games as opportunities for recruiting, Vasquez said. The same does not happen with baseball, basketball or other sports.

These days, the military has less influence over football, but there are still connections. The Vince Lombardi Super Bowl trophy, for example, was named for a man who was once an assistant coach at West Point. And, Vasquez pointed out, New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick was raised in Annapolis, where his father worked for more than 30 years as an assistant football coach at the Naval Academy.