Collegiate football was less than a decade old in the United States when Theodore Roosevelt saw his very first game as a Harvard College undergraduate in 1876. This young sport soon came to be known for several troubling aspects, including excessive violence during play, fatalities on the field, the use of non-student athletes, recruiting scandals, and corrupt referees. Nevertheless, Roosevelt liked football. His four sons played and enjoyed the game. TR believed that football was a fittingly vigorous and American sport. He said often that the football phrase “Don’t flinch, don’t foul, hit the line hard,” was “a good rule for life.” (TR to Leslie M. Hagen, February 1903) In 1893, he made his approval public in Harper’s Weekly, stating that the risk of injury was worthwhile because football—played honestly—cultivated important masculine qualities.

But football-related injuries continued. The head of Roosevelt’s alma mater, Harvard College President Charles Eliot, joined the swelling ranks of those criticizing football in his 1903 annual report. Eliot’s disgust was so great that he called for the sport to be outlawed altogether. Muckraking journalist Henry Beech Needham investigated gridiron abuses in a two-part McClure’s Magazine series in the summer of 1905. President Theodore Roosevelt met with Needham to discuss their shared concerns. Needham advocated “strict adherence to the amateur athletic code,” an idea Roosevelt supported. TR never thought football should be abolished, but he did support rule changes to make the game safer.

On June 28, 1905, Roosevelt spoke to a meeting of Harvard alumni. He reaffirmed his commitment to sport, even “rough games,” where players could get hurt. But, he continued, “when these injuries are inflicted by others, either wantonly or of set design, we are confronted by the question not of damage to one man’s body, but of damage to the other man’s character. Brutality in playing a game should awaken the heartiest and most plainly shown contempt for the player guilty of it; especially if this brutality is coupled with a low cunning in committing it without getting caught by the umpire.”

In September, just before the fall 1905 season began, President Roosevelt received a letter from Endicott Peabody of Groton, the school all four Roosevelt boys attended. Peabody insisted that “the teaching of Foot-ball at the Universities is dishonest” and asked TR to use his bully pulpit to convince coaches to stop teaching underhanded plays. (Endicott Peabody to TR, September 16, 1905)

Roosevelt determined to clean up football. On October 9, 1905, he brought together seven men for a White House meeting: football coaches Walter Camp of Yale, Arthur T. Hildebrand of Princeton, and William T. Reid of Harvard, along with the three heads of their respective alumni committees, and Secretary of State Elihu Root. Roosevelt encouraged them to lay out methods to decrease gratuitous violence. He lacked authority to force the coaches to do anything, but he had faith in the ability of wise and good-hearted Americans to come to a mutually beneficial agreement. The men issued a statement denouncing on-field viciousness and pledged themselves to a higher level of play. It was the first time that a president had actively involved himself in reforming college athletics.

But then the 1905 season turned out to be marked by especially high levels of vicious play, cheating, biased refereeing, rioting—and 18 deaths. One of the more minor pigskin troubles was the broken nose Harvard freshman Ted Roosevelt suffered in the Harvard-Yale freshman football game. It would have gone unnoticed but for the fact that it was so badly broke it required surgery, and because of widely held suspicions that Ted was purposefully targeted.

Public outcry reached a crescendo after the death of Union College’s Harold P. Moore in November 1905. A number of meetings occurred as the universities themselves came together to debate the future of the sport. Some schools wanted to amend the rules to create a safer game. Others believed the game was irredeemable. On the West coast, two colleges substituted rugby for football. Columbia, Union, and New York University simply cancelled their programs. This Roosevelt found excessive. By the end of the year, the Intercollegiate Athletic Association had been founded. This precursor to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) would eventually adopt safer rules of play.

Theodore Roosevelt is often credited with the reform of football. When he put his personal convictions and the moral force of the presidency behind it, coaches and universities paid attention.