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It’s Thanks Giving evening the Dallas Cowboys are playing the Detroit Lions and your watching that game in the family room with nobody else but family. This wonderful site is the scene in many American households. The sport call “Football” is a part of American culture and become the #1 American pastime surpassing baseball. For example even our president calls the Dallas Cowboys “The American Team”. Here is why the NFL and its conferences are a major part of American history and culture.
The history of American football, a spectator sport in the United States, can be traced to early versions of rugby football. Both games have their origin in varieties of football played in the United Kingdom in the mid-19th century, in which a football is kicked at a goal and run over a line. American football resulted from several major divergences from rugby, most notably the rule changes instituted by Walter Camp, considered the “Father of American Football”. Among these important changes was the introduction of the line of scrimmage and of down-and-distance rules. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, gameplay developments by college coaches such as Eddie Cochems, Amos Alonzo Stagg, Knute Rockne, and Glenn “Pop” Warner helped take advantage of the newly introduced forward pass. The popularity of collegiate football grew as it became the dominant version of the sport in the United States for the first half of the twentieth century. Bowl games, a college football tradition, attracted a national audience for collegiate teams. With a lot of fierce rivalries, college football still holds widespread appeal in the US. The origin of professional football can be traced back to 1892, with William “Pudge” Heffelfinger’s $500 contract to play in a game for the Allegheny Athletic Association against the Pittsburgh Athletic Club. In 1920 the American Professional Football Association was formed. This league changed its name to the National Football League two years later, and eventually became the major league of American football. Primarily a sport of Midwestern industrial towns in the United States, professional football eventually became a national phenomenon. Football’s increasing popularity is usually traced to the 1958 NFL Championship Game, a contest that has been named the “Greatest Game Ever Played”. A rival league to the NFL, the American Football League, began play in 1960 the pressure it put on the senior league led to a merger between the two leagues and the creation of the Super Bowl, which has become the most watched television event in the United States on an annual basis.
The First games of “Football”
A Native American college football team, the “Pirates,” posed for this photo in 1879. Carlisle Indian Industrial School students pioneered and excelled in modern American sports. Although there are mentions of Native Americans playing ball games, modern American football has its origins in traditional ball games played at villages and schools in Europe for many centuries before America was settled by Europeans. There are reports of early settlers at Jamestown, Virginia playing games with inflated balls in the early 17th century. Early games appear to have had much in common with the traditional “mob football” played in England, especially on Shrove Tuesday. The games remained largely unorganized until the 19th century, when intramural games of football began to be played on college campuses. Each school played its own variety of football. Princeton students played a game called “ballown” as early as 1820. A Harvard tradition known as “Bloody Monday” began in 1827, which consisted of a mass ballgame between the freshman and sophomore classes. Dartmouth played its own version called “Old division football”, the rules of which were first published in 1871, though the game dates to at least the 1830s. All of these games, and others, shared certain commonalities. They remained largely “mob” style games, with huge numbers of players attempting to advance the ball into a goal area, often by any means necessary. Rules were simple and violence and injury were common. The violence of these mob-style games led to widespread protests and a decision to abandon them. Yale, under pressure from the city of New Haven, banned the play of all forms of football in 1860, while Harvard followed suit in 1861.
While the game was being banned in colleges, it was growing in popularity in various east coast prep schools. In 1855, manufactured inflatable balls were introduced. These were much more regular in shape than the handmade balls of earlier times, making kicking and carrying easier. Two general types of football had evolved by this time: “kicking” games and “running” games. A hybrid of the two, known as the “Boston game”, was played by a group known as the Oneida Football Club. The club, considered by some historians as the first formal football club in the United States, was formed in 1862 by schoolboys who played the “Boston game” on Boston Common. They played mostly between themselves, though they organized a team of non-members to play a game in November 1863, which the Oneidas won easily. The game caught the attention of the press, and the “Boston game” continued to spread throughout the 1860s. The game began to return to college campuses by the late 1860s. Yale, Princeton, Rutgers, and Brown all began playing “kicking” games during this time. In 1867, Princeton used rules based on those of the English Football Association. A “running game” resembling rugby was taken up by the Montreal Football Club in Canada in 1868. On November 6, 1869, Rutgers University faced Princeton University in a game that was played with a round ball under “Football Association” rules i.e. soccer, but is often regarded as the first game of intercollegiate football. The game was played at a Rutgers field under Rutgers rules. Two teams of 25 players attempted to score by kicking the ball into the opposing team’s goal. Throwing or carrying the ball was not allowed. The first team to reach six goals was declared the winner. Rutgers won by a score of six to four. A rematch was played at Princeton a week later under Princeton rules (one notable difference was the awarding of a “free kick” to any player that caught the ball on the fly). Princeton won that game by a score of eight to zero. Columbia joined the series in 1870, and by 1872 several schools were fielding intercollegiate teams, including Yale and Stevens Institute of Technology.
Modernization and innovation (1906-1930)
1906 St. Louis Post-Dispatch photograph of Brad Robinson, who threw the first legal forward pass and was the sport’s first triple threatAs a result of the 1905-1906 reforms, mass formation plays became illegal and forward passes legal. Bradbury Robinson, playing for visionary coach Eddie Cochems at St. Louis University, threw the first legal pass in a September 5, 1906 game against Carroll College at Waukesha. Other important changes, formally adopted in 1910, were the requirements that at least seven offensive players be on the line of scrimmage at the time of the snap, that there be no pushing or pulling, and that interlocking interference (arms linked or hands on belts and uniforms) was not allowed. These changes greatly reduced the potential for collision injuries. Several coaches emerged who took advantage of these sweeping changes. Amos Alonzo Stagg introduced such innovations as the huddle, the tackling dummy, and the pre-snap shift. Other coaches, such as Pop Warner and Knute Rockne, introduced new strategies that still remain part of the game. Besides these coaching innovations, several rules changes during the first third of the twentieth century had a profound impact on the game, mostly in opening up the passing game. In 1914, the first roughing-the-passer penalty was implemented. In 1918, the rules on eligible receivers were loosened to allow eligible players to catch the ball anywhere on the field-previously strict rules were in place only allowing passes to certain areas of the field. Scoring rules also changed during this time: field goals were lowered to three points in 1909 and touchdowns raised to six points in 1912. Star players that emerged in the early twentieth century include Jim Thorpe, Red Grange, and Bronko Nagurski; these three made the transition to the fledgling NFL and helped turn it into a successful league. Sportswriter Grantland Rice helped popularize the sport with his poetic descriptions of games and colorful nicknames for the game’s biggest players, including Grange, whom he dubbed “The Galloping Ghost,” Notre Dame’s “Four Horsemen” backfield, and Fordham University’s linemen, known as the “Seven Blocks of Granite”. Glenn “Pop” Warner coached at several schools throughout his career, including the University of Georgia, Cornell University, University of Pittsburgh, Stanford University, and the Temple University. One of his most famous stints was at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, where he coached Jim Thorpe, who went on to become the first president of the National Football League, an Olympic Gold Medalist, and is widely considered one of the best overall athletes in history. Warner wrote one of the first important books of football strategy, Football for Coaches and Players, published in 1927. Though the shift was invented by Stagg, Warner’s single wing and double wing formations greatly improved upon it for almost 40 years, these were among the most important formations in football. As part of his single and double wing formations, Warner was one of the first coaches to effectively utilize the forward pass. Among his other innovations are modern blocking schemes, the three-point stance, and the reverse play. The youth football league, Pop Warner Little Scholars, was named in his honor.
From a regional to a national sport (1930-1958)
In the early 1930s, the college game continued to grow, particularly in the South, bolstered by fierce rivalries such as the “South’s Oldest Rivalry”, between Virginia and North Carolina and the “Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry”, between Georgia and Auburn. Although before the mid-1920s most national powers came from the Northeast or the Midwest, the trend changed when several teams from the South and the West Coast achieved national success. Wallace William Wade’s 1925 Alabama team won the 1926 Rose Bowl after receiving its first national title and William Alexander’s 1928 Georgia Tech team defeated California in the 1929 Rose Bowl. College football quickly became the most popular spectator sport in the South. Several major modern college football conferences rose to prominence during this time period. The Southwest Athletic Conference had been founded in 1915. Consisting mostly of schools from Texas, the conference saw back-to-back national champions with Texas Christian University (TCU) in 1938 and Texas A&M in 1939. The Pacific Coast Conference (PCC), a precursor to the Pacific-10 Conference (Pac-10), had its own back-to-back champion in the University of Southern California which was awarded the title in 1931 and 1932. The Southeastern Conference (SEC) formed in 1932 and consisted mostly of schools in the Deep South. As in previous decades, the Big Ten continued to dominate in the 1930s and 1940s, with Minnesota winning 5 titles between 1934 and 1941, and Michigan (1933 and 1948) and Ohio State (1942) also winning titles. As it grew beyond its regional affiliations in the 1930s, college football garnered increased national attention. Four new bowl games were created: the Orange Bowl, Sugar Bowl, the Sun Bowl in 1935, and the Cotton Bowl in 1937. In lieu of an actual national championship, these bowl games, along with the earlier Rose Bowl, provided a way to match up teams from distant regions of the country that did not otherwise play. In 1936, the Associated Press began its weekly poll of prominent sports writers, ranking all of the nation’s college football teams. Since there was no national championship game, the final version of the AP poll was used to determined who was crowned the National Champion of college football. The 1930s saw growth in the passing game. Though some coaches, such as General Robert Neyland at Tennessee, continued to eschew its use, several rules changes to the game had a profound effect on teams’ ability to throw the ball. In 1934, the rules committee removed two major penalties a loss of five yards for a second incomplete pass in any series of downs and a loss of possession for an incomplete pass in the end zone, and shrunk the circumference of the ball, making it easier to grip and throw, players who became famous for taking advantage of the easier passing game included Alabama receiver Don Hutson and TCU passer “Slingin” Sammy Baugh. In 1935, New York City’s Downtown Athletic Club awarded the first Heisman Trophy to University of Chicago halfback Jay Berwanger, who was also the first ever NFL Draft pick in 1936. The trophy was designed by sculptor Frank Eliscu and modeled after NYU player Ed Smith. The trophy recognizes the nation’s “most outstanding” college football player and has become one of the most coveted awards in all of American sports. During World War II, college football players enlisted in the armed forces. As most of these players had eligibility left on their college careers, some of them returned to college at West Point, bringing Army back-to-back national titles in 1944 and 1945 under coach Red Blaik. Doc Blanchard (known as “Mr. Inside”) and Glenn Davis known as “Mr. Outside” both won the Heisman Trophy, in 1945 and 1946 respectively. On the coaching staff of those 1944-1946 Army teams was future Pro Football Hall of Fame coach Vince Lombardi. The 1950s saw the rise of yet more dynasties and power programs. Oklahoma, under coach Bud Wilkinson, won three national titles 1950, 1955, 1956 and all ten Big Eight Conference championships in the decade while building a record 47 game winning streak. Woody Hayes led Ohio State to two national titles, in 1954 and 1957, and dominated the Big Ten conference, winning three Big Ten titles more than any other school. Wilkinson and Hayes, along with Robert Neyland of Tennessee, oversaw a revival of the running game in the 1950s. Passing numbers dropped from an average of 18.9 attempts in 1951 to 13.6 attempts in 1955, while teams averaged just shy of 50 running plays per game. Nine out of ten Heisman trophy winners in the 1950s were runners. Notre Dame, one of the biggest passing teams of the decade, saw a substantial decline in success; the 1950s were the only decade between 1920 and 1990 when the team did not win at least a share of the national title. Paul Hornung, Notre Dame quarterback, did however win the Heisman in 1956, becoming the only player from a losing team ever to do so.
Modern college football (1958-present)
Following the enormous television success of the National Football League’s 1958 championship game, college football no longer enjoyed the same popularity as the NFL, at least on a national level. While both games benefited from the advent of television, since the late 1950s, the NFL has become a nationally popular sport while college football has maintained strong regional ties. A college football game between Colorado State University and the Air Force Academy. As professional football became a national television phenomenon, college football did as well. In the 1950s, Notre Dame, which had a large national following, formed its own network to broadcast its games, but by and large the sport still retained a mostly regional following. In 1952, the NCAA claimed all television broadcasting rights for the games of its member institutions, and it alone negotiated television rights. This situation continued until 1984, when several schools brought a suit under the Sherman Antitrust Act; the Supreme Court ruled against the NCAA and schools are now free to negotiate their own television deals. ABC Sports began broadcasting a national Game of the Week in 1966, bringing key matchups and rivalries to a national audience for the first time. New formations and play sets continued to be developed. Emory Bellard, an assistant coach under Darrell Royal at the University of Texas, developed a three-back option style offense known as the wishbone. The wishbone is a run-heavy offense that depends on the quarterback making last second decisions on when and to whom to hand or pitch the ball to. Royal went on to teach the offense to other coaches, including Bear Bryant at Alabama, Chuck Fairbanks at Oklahoma and Pepper Rodgers at UCLA; who all adapted and developed it to their own tastes. The strategic opposite of the wishbone is the spread offense, developed by professional and college coaches throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Though some schools play a run-based version of the spread, its most common use is as a passing offense designed to “spread” the field both horizontally and vertically. Some teams have managed to adapt with the times to keep winning consistently. In the rankings of the most victorious programs, Michigan, Texas, and Notre Dame are ranked 1, 2, and 3 as judged by both total wins and winning percentage.
Growth of bowl games
In 1940, there were only five bowl games Rose, Orange, Sugar, Sun, and Cotton. By 1950, three more had joined that number and in 1970, there were still only eight major college bowl games. The number grew to eleven in 1976. At the birth of cable television and cable sports networks like ESPN, there were fifteen bowls in 1980. With more national venues and increased available revenue, the bowls saw an explosive growth throughout the 1980s and 1990s. In the thirty years from 1950 to 1980, seven bowl games were added to the schedule. From 1980 to 2008, an additional 19 bowl games were added to the schedule. Some have criticized this growth, claiming that the increased number of games has diluted the significance of playing in a bowl game. Yet others have countered that the increased number of games has increased exposure and revenue for a greater number of schools, and see it as a positive development. With the growth of bowl games, it became difficult to determine a national champion in a fair and equitable manner. As conferences became contractually bound to certain bowl games a situation known as a tie-in, match-ups that guaranteed a consensus national champion became increasingly rare. In 1992, seven conferences and independent Notre Dame formed the Bowl Coalition, which attempted to arrange an annual #1 versus #2 matchup based on the final AP poll standings. The Coalition lasted for three years, however several scheduling issues prevented much success; tie-ins still took precedence in several cases. For example the Big Eight and SEC champions could never meet, since they were contractually bound to different bowl games. The coalition also excluded the Rose Bowl, arguably the most prestigious game in the nation, and two major conferences the Pac-10 and Big Ten meaning that it had limited success. In 1995, the Coalition was replaced by the Bowl Alliance, which reduced the number of bowl games to host a national championship game to three the Fiesta, Sugar, and Orange Bowls and the participating conferences to five the ACC, SEC, Southwest, Big Eight, and Big East. It was agreed that the #1 and #2 ranked teams gave up their prior bowl tie-ins and were guaranteed to meet in the national championship game, which rotated between the three participating bowls. The system still did not include the Big Ten, Pac-10, or the Rose Bowl, and thus still lacked the legitimacy of a true national championship.
The NFL continued to grow, eventually adopting some innovations of the AFL, including the two-point PAT conversion. It has expanded several times to its current 32-team membership, and the Super Bowl has become more than simply a football championship. One of the most popular televised events annually in the United States, it has become a major source of advertising revenue for the television networks that have carried it and it serves as a means for advertisers to debut elaborate and expensive commercials for their products. The NFL has grown to become the most popular spectator sports league in the United States. One of the things that has marked the modern NFL as different from other major professional sports leagues is the apparent parity between its 32 teams. While from time to time, dominant teams have arisen, the league has been cited as one of the few where every team has a realistic chance of winning the championship from year to year. The league’s complex labor agreement with its players’ union, which mandates a hard salary cap and revenue sharing between its clubs, prevents the richest teams from stockpiling the best players and gives even teams in smaller cities such as Green Bay and New Orleans the opportunity to compete for the Super Bowl. One of the chief architects of this labor agreement was former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who presided over the league from 1989 to 2006. In addition to providing parity between the clubs, the current labor contract, established in 1993 and renewed in 1998 and 2006, has kept player salaries low the lowest among the four major league sports in the United States and has helped make the NFL the only major American professional sports league since 1993 not to suffer any player strike or work stoppage. Since taking over as commissioner before the 2006 season, Roger Goodell has made player conduct a priority of his office. Since taking office, several high-profile players have experienced trouble with the law, from Adam “Pacman” Jones to Michael Vick. In these and other cases, Commissioner Goodell has mandated lengthy suspensions for players who fall outside of acceptable conduct limits. Other professional leagues several other professional football leagues have been formed since the AFL-NFL merger, though none have had the success of the AFL. In 1974, the World Football League formed and was able to attract such stars as Larry Csonka away from the NFL with lucrative contracts. However, most of the WFL franchises were insolvent and the league folded in 1975 the Memphis Southmen, the team that had signed Csonka and the most financially stable of the teams, unsuccessfully sued to join the NFL. In 1982, the United States Football League formed as a spring league, and enjoyed moderate success during its first two seasons behind such stars as Jim Kelly and Herschel Walker. It moved its schedule to the fall in 1985, and tried to compete with the NFL directly, but it was unable to do so and folded, despite winning an anti-trust suit against the older league. The NFL founded a developmental league known as the World League of American Football with teams based in the United States, Canada, and Europe. The WLAF ran for two years, from 1991 to 1992. The league went on a two-year hiatus before reorganizing as NFL Europe in 1995, with teams only in European cities. The name of the league was changed to NFL Europa in 2006. After the 2007 season, the NFL announced that it was closing down the league to focus its international marketing efforts in other ways, such as playing NFL regular season games in cities outside of the U.S. In 2001, the XFL was formed as a joint venture between the World Wrestling Federation and the NBC television network. It folded after one season because of a lack of fan interest. However, XFL stars such as Tommy Maddox and Rod “He Hate Me” Smart later saw success in the NFL. The United Football League is a four-team fully professional league which played its first season in October-November 2009. Involved in this league are Mark Cuban, media mogul and owner of the National Basketball Association’s Dallas Mavericks and William Hambrecht, a prominent Wall Street investor. Two additional football leagues are scheduled to begin play in the near future. The All American Football League, a six team league scheduled to begin play in spring 2010, will be based in communities with large college football followings. Another league, reviving the name of the United States Football League, is scheduled to begin play in February 2010, though it has had significantly less media coverage than the AAFL or UFL.
So in closing you can see why the great game of “Football” is a part of American history and most of all American culture. So the next time you turn on the T.V or go to a game know that maybe you are making a mark on Football and American History.
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