How was football invented and is it truly an American invention?

Most football historians agree that American football has its origins in English soccer (international football) and rugby. Rugby began in 1823 at the Rugby Boys School in England. But American football is, almost by definition, an American invention.

The roots of football in American colleges

After the Civil war a group of students at Princeton began playing a rugby-like game using their fists, and then their feet, to advance the ball. The one main goal was to advance the ball past the opposing team. There were no hard and fast rules.

At Harvard the freshman and sophomore classes competed in a football-type game, played on the first Monday of each school year; this event came to be known as Bloody Monday because of the roughness of the game. Pick up games, where similar in style to that played on Bloody Monday, soon became popular on the Boston Common, catching on in popularity around 1860.

Soon after the end of the American Civil War around 1865, colleges began organizing football games. In 1867, Princeton led the way in establishing some rudimentary rules of the game. Also in that year, the football itself was patented for the very first time. That early ball was a crude watermelon, almost round shape.

Rutgers College also established a set of rules in 1867, and with the relatively short distance between it and Princeton, they played a game on November 6, 1869. Rutgers won by a score of six goals to four. This was the very first intercollegiate football game.

In 1873, representatives from Columbia, Rutgers, Princeton, and Yale met in New York City to formulate the first intercollegiate football rules for the increasingly popular game, still being played with many of the rules of soccer. These four teams established the Intercollegiate Football Association (IFA), and set as 15 the number of players allowed on each team.

Walter Camp, the coach at Yale and a dissenter from the IFA over his desire for an 11-man team, helped begin the final step in the evolution from rugby-style play to the modern football game of American football. Led by Camp the IFAs rules committee soon cut the number of players from 15 to 11. They also instituted the size of the playing field, at 110 yards.

In 1882, Camp introduced the system of downs. After first allowing three attempts to advance the ball five yards, in 1906 it was changed to ten yards. The fourth down was added in 1912. Tackling below the waist was legalized in 1888.

Within a decade, concern over the increasing brutality of the game led to its ban by some colleges. In 1905, President Teddy Roosevelt called upon Harvard, Princeton, and Yale to help save the sport. At a meeting between the schools, reform was agreed upon, and at a second meeting, attended by more than sixty other schools, the group appointed a seven member Rules Committee and set up what would later become known as the National Collegiate Athletic Association, or the NCAA.

From this committee came the legalization of the forward pass, which resulted in a more open style of play on the field. The rough mass plays, which once caused so many serious injuries, and even deaths, were prohibited by the committee. Also prohibited was the locking of arms by teammates in an effort to clear the way for their ball carriers.

The length of the game was shortened, from 70 to 60 minutes, and the neutral zone, which separates the teams by the length of the ball before each play begins, was also established.

Colleges and universities are placed into three divisions under NCAA guidelines and each division has many conferences. Seasonal and conference play leads to post-season bowl games, where the champions of conferences meet to play in front of a world-wide television audience. Some of these bowls include the Rose Bowl, played on New Years Day in Pasadena, California, between the Big Ten and Pacific Ten conference champions. Other bowls include the Orange Bowl in Miami, Florida, the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, Louisiana, the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Texas, and the Peach Bowl in Atlanta, Georgia.

Early Professional Football

Professional football was first played soon after the demise of the Intercollegiate Football Association, around 1895. In 1920, the American Professional Football Association was formed; one year later it was reorganized and in 1922 it was renamed the National Football League. Thus the NFL was born.

The NFL was limited to ten teams from 1946 to 1949. A merger in 1970, 50 years after the inception of the first pro football association, combined 16 NFL teams with ten AFL teams to comprise one league with two conferences.

In the 1980s, further expansion was proposed and by the 1993-1994 NFL season, approval was given for a 30-team league. The next step towards growth of the league would be to realign the NFL into eight different divisions, each with four teams.

Pro football, like its college counterpart, was not without its failures. Among the number of competitive leagues that have folded in failure are:

  • The All-American Football conference, 1946-1949
  • The American Football League, 1960-1969
  • The World Football League, 1974-1975
  • Arena Football, an indoor league played in the spring with eight man teams, debuted in 1987.

Modern Professional Football

Football has become a multi-billion dollar business in its professional form. Once watched by no more than a handful of loyal sideline enthusiasts, football is now available for worldwide viewing.

With the advent of cable television, dozens of high school and college games can be watched over Friday and Saturday afternoons. Pro games are televised on Sunday and Monday nights, with at least half a dozen games televised each weekend during the season.

At the end of each NFL season, champs from both the National and American conferences meet in the Super Bowl to determine a national champion. This game, always played in January, has been called the most watched sporting event of all time, with a viewing audience from around the entire globe, watching and listening in dozens of languages.

Although television commercials foot a very large part of the bill, the competition between networks for the coverage rights highly inflates the value of NFL franchises. In 1920, a franchise cost $100. By 1960, each was worth approximately two million dollars. In 1993, when the league decided to expand, selling teams to Charlotte, North Carolina and Jacksonville, Florida, the cost rose to $140 million dollars per franchise.

In the same year, the NFL signed a five-network, four year television contract, totaling almost four and a half billion dollars.