Why Americans Don’t Play Soccer, and Everyone Else Does Part III

This is the third of my series on why Americans don’t play soccer, and everyone else does.  You can find Part I here and Part II here. The story so far: modern football has its origin as an English folk game.  It was codified in the early Victorian era, at the same time splitting into two versions: Association football, which emphasized kicking the ball; and Rugby, which emphasized running with the ball.

In this part and the next I will discuss how this played out in America. Americans initially adopted both the Rugby and Association codes, with Rugby eventually coming out ahead. It was promptly modified almost beyond recognition, resulting in endless weekends lost to American football. I had originally planned on treating this all in one post, but I find myself dangerously close to “long form” writing, and am breaking it up into two.

Football was brought to America by the English colonists, and was widely played. This included, as in England, our proud educational institutions. In England this concentrated in the public schools–what we would call private preparatory boarding schools. Such schools were a much weaker cultural force in America, and football ended up instead concentrated in higher education, and in particular in those colleges that would come to make up the Ivy League.

These early college games were intramural affairs. Several had a tradition of an annual game pitting the sophomores against the incoming freshman class–as much a hazing ritual as competitive sport. Less formal games also occasionally bubble up. In 1841 the New Haven fire department staged a review. This interfered with a game of football a group of Yale students were playing on the New Haven Green. They responded as any group of college boys would: they fought off the fire department, then came back that night and broke into the engine house, demolished a fire engine, and cut up a couple hundred feet of hose. Go Yale!1

The 1850s saw a general rise in organized sport, and sports as a legitimate adult activity. Football was part of this movement, but only in a minor way. Football clubs popped up all over the place, but mostly didn’t stick around very long. As a typical example, a regular game was got up in Baltimore in 1859 until the neighbors complained and the mayor sent the police to break it up. This spurred the Baltimore players to get more organized and form clubs, but they had trouble finding a place to play. One attempt involved a train ride sixteen miles out of town followed by a hike across open fields to the playing field. The organizers helpfully suggested the walk across the fields could be used to practice ball control skills.

The problem seems to have been that in an urban environment it was difficult to find places to play. Early baseball had this problem too, but the neighbors seem to have been more tolerant of baseball. Football could be difficult to distinguish from a riot, and so was treated as a public nuisance more than was baseball. This is why football, unlike baseball, came to be centered on colleges rather than clubs. Colleges had a high concentration of young males lacking good judgment, and with the free time and financial resources to indulge said poor judgment. The institutions even frequently came with the necessary real estate. Add to this that football, as a fall sport, was better adapted to the academic calendar and the academic course the sport would take seems obvious in retrospect.

How did they play the game? Recall that the English game was originally more of the kicking variety (though this need not exclude more handling of the ball than is allowed in modern soccer). This was true in America as well, which is unsurprising since we brought it over from there. Here is an unusually detailed account of a game played in 1865 between the freshman and sophomore classes of Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut:

Josiah Blackwell, of the senior class, was selected for umpire by the sophomores, and Henry K. Huntington, of the senior class, by the freshman. The umpires then chose J.H. Brocklesby of the class of ’65, as referee. The choice of field fell to ’69. at 11 o’clock and 33 minutes, the time was called by the referee and the first game began, the match being decided by the best three games out of five. The ball was canted with the center of the field by Kissam, of ’68, and well followed up by the class. ’68 contested the ground quite sharply and drove them some distance back, when ’69 rallied, pushed the sophomores forward and the ball was sent home by a beautiful kick, by Brocklesby of ’69. Time of game, seven minutes.

After an interval of ten minutes, the time was again called and both parties appeared on the ground. The classes having changed fields, according to the usual custom, the “cant” this game belonging to ’68. The ball was canted by Brevoort, of the sophomore class, who made a splendid kick. The freshmen received the ball well and played quite handsomely, but the skill and experience of the sophomores was too much for them, and after a short contest, the ball was sent over the bounds by Stanley, of ’68. The game was then claimed by the freshmen, on the ground that one of their men (Brocklesby) made a fly catch and was not allowed time or space to have a free kick at the ball, in accordance with the rules.

The matter was finally, by mutual consent, referred to an outside party who decided that the catch was fair, but the right to kick the ball was lost when it was dropped, and also that if after the referee had decided the contested question ’68 refused to abide by his decision, the matter was lost to them. The sophomores then took up the game again, the ball being kicked through the middle. The game was a short one, Brevoort of ’68 “getting a lead” on the ball which he drove handsomely home, and the game was declared won by ’68. Time 32 minutes.

On the third game the freshmen had the “cant,” with the usual exchange of fields. The ball was canted by Brocklesby of ’69, who sent it quite beyond and over the heads of a portion of the opposing party. This game was not lengthy, but very spirited, and was won by ’68 the ball being sent over bounds by Brevoort. Time seven minutes.

Previous to the commencement of the fourth game Brevoort of the sophomore class was taken sick and obliged to be sent back to college, and as the umpire for ’68 left the field with him a new one was selected, Henry A. Metcalf of the senior class.
On the fourth game the ball was “canted” by Niggin of ’68, who missed it on the first trial, thereby giving the freshmen the advantage. The game was won by them in ten minutes, the ball ball being finely kicked over the bounds by McConkey of ’69.

The fifth game and the last was the most exciting, as both classes so far had gained two games apiece. The time was called at 1.45. The ball was fairly canted by Kissam of ’68, and both classes went into the game determinedly. It however was soon decided in favor of ’69. LeRoy of the freshman class got a fine lead on the ball and kicked it home in grand style. The match was then declared won by ’69. Three cheers were given by the classes for each other, for the umpires and the referee. It was the finest college foot ball match that has been played here for several years. Brevoort, Stanley, Curtis and Wiggin of ’68 did admirably, while LeRoy, Kissam, Brocklesby and Short of ’69 acquitted themselves with great credit. The freshmen may well be proud of their victory, as the sophomores outnumbered them, and sophomore skill and experience is something to contend against. (Source: Hartford Daily Courant October 9, 1865)

Notice that the game seems to have been between the entire classes, without regard to even numbers. This suggests a charming informality. How the game was played is not entirely clear, but there is much mention of kicking, no mention of running with the ball, and the description includes a fair catch very reminiscent of the early Football Association rules described in Part II.

Here is a description of how to play football that is even less formal, and seems to have been aimed at a non-academic audience:

FOOT BALL We purpose giving our readers a few instructions in regard to playing this fascinating game. The first thing needed is the ball, which can be procured at any store, and two should be procured in case of accident. Having the balls, the next matter is to make the “goals” through which the ball has to pass. These are very simple and may be set up in a few minutes. Get four long and straight sticks, or poles, forked at the top, and two straight sticks without forks. The two goals are pitched exactly opposite each other, at any distance agreed upon, or as may be suitable to the grounds; each goal consisting of the two of the forked sticks planted upright in the ground, with the straight stick laid crossways on top of them. Seven feet is a good distance between the poles. Two long lines are then traced parallel to each other, and passing through the bases of the poles. These are termed goal lines, and may be conveniently marked out with whitewash. A small hole is then put in the very centre of the ground, and a peg of wood is driven into the ground to mark the spot.

The captains now dispose their men, according to their ability, each captain being obliged to keep his men on his own side of the peg or pole. Each side has now to drive the ball through the opposite goal, and to guard their own from being taken. The struggle begins by having the ball thrown perpendicularly from the peg, so as to fall evenly in the centre usually in a muga surface. Sometimes the mode of starting the ball is different, the two sides tossing for the start, the winners starting from the centre, and being allowed a fair kick as the ball lies on the ground. In our opinion, however, the perpendicular or upward fling of the ball is the best. We shall now lay down the few rules that are needful for playing the game:

1. The game being essentially Foot ball, no player may take up the ball from the ground.
2. If a player can catch the ball on the fly, he may take a hand-kick, without the other side being permitted to interfere. (A hand-kick consists of dropping the ball from the hands and kicking it on its fall.) If such player, however, should drop the ball accidentally, or in any way touch the ground with it, the opposite side may attack it.
3. If the ball pass outside or over the goal, and beyond the goal line, the player of the side which drove it over shall fetch the ball and throw it gently to the centre, without favor to either side. (The object of this rule will be explained presently.)
4. Any kicking, except at the ball, is prohibited.

The ball must be kicked through the goal, not struck or thrown, or touch any part of any player of the same side, except the foot of him who kicks it. In such a case, the ball is pitched back, as in rule 3. These few remarks are, we believe, all that are really useful. This 3d rule is used because it sometimes happens that irritable players, finding their opponents’ goal too well defended, wilfully kick the ball far beyond it, hoping to exhaust their opponents, and thus needlessly prolong the game. In disposing of the men, the best way is to place a good player in front of the goal, so as to stop the ball from being kicked between the poles over the heads of the players, as might otherwise be achieved by a hand-kick, and as, indeed, is the object of that privilege. Another good player is stationed about half way between the goal and the centre of the ground, and these two are said to “play back;”the out “playing up.” The goal-keeper never leaves his post, except at the utmost emergency–such as the ball being driven towards his goal by several opponents, and no one but himself to prevent the game from being lost. He should then dash at the ball, hoping to get it out of the line, and so to give time for his own party to come to the rescue. Our readers will find the above rules amply sufficient for playing this most fascinating out-door game. (Source: Philadelphia Sunday Mercury December 10, 1871)

That’s actually pretty clear, apart from where an urban lad is going to procure four long poles conveniently forked at one end.

Formal codification came out of intercollegiate competition. The first such game, the story goes, was played on November 6, 1869 between Princeton (then the College of New Jersey) and Rutgers College. This, as such stories go, is refreshingly non-bogus. The game actually occurred. (Rutgers won 6-4.) It wasn’t quite the first intercollegiate game, but earlier ones had been between schools located adjacent to one another. It was the first that involved travel greater than taking a stroll down the block.

More to the point, it was at the leading edge of a trend. Schools started playing one another regularly. But under what rules? The Princeton-Rutgers game led off another trend by borrowing rules from England. This seems to have been partly due to the prestige of English sport, and partly out of a sensible decision not to reinvent the wheel. Since the students were already familiar with the kicking game, it was natural to borrow the Football Association rather than the Rugby rules.

At this point in the story we are headed down the path of the Americans playing soccer, perhaps with some minor local variations. In this time line, American schools would begin sending teams to England and vice versa.2 This in turn would discourage too much divergence in the rules, and when the time came for serious international competition, the United States would be the 800 pound gorilla. I say this not out of Rah! Rah! nationalism, but out of realism. The United States is large and it is wealthy. Add “really really cares about it” and we inevitably end up with the team that the rest of world unites in hating, while exporting their best players here. I mention this as food for thought for non-Americans evangelizing soccer to America.

So how did we avert this disaster? Thank Harvard. And Canada. Seriously.

Most of the country played a kicking game, but Boston was the exception. There doesn’t seem to be any particular reason for this. It was just a random fluctuation in the sports-quantum field equation. Boston, and with it Harvard, favored a version that included carrying the ball. So it was that when, in 1873, delegates of various colleges met to agree on a uniform set of rules, Harvard stayed home:

The foot ball club refused to enter into a conversation to arrange rules for foot-ball contests between colleges, on the ground that Harvard played a game peculiar to itself and radically different from that in vogue either at Yale, Columbia, Princeton and Rutgers, and any change would not be satisfactory to the students. (Source: Boston Daily Advertiser October 25, 1873)

Those lesser institutions adopted a modified version of the Football Association rules, while Harvard maintained its splendid isolation. Until the next year. While Harvard was not playing under the Rugby rules, their rules were within shouting distance of Rugby. They were able to arrange a game with students from McGill University in Montreal, who played a slightly modified version of the Rugby Union rules. The Canadians made the trip to Boston. On May 14, 1874 McGill played a match against Harvard under the Boston rules, and the next day they played again under the Rugby rules.football01

The two sides, unsurprisingly, each won when playing their own rules. The Harvard players, despite this, were enchanted by Rugby and decided to adopt it. Furthermore, a group of students from Tufts observed the Harvard-McGill game and were similarly taken. They started practicing Rugby, and challenged Harvard the next year to a match.

Yale was next to crack. Yale and Harvard had been competing in baseball for years. Both were eager to extend the rivalry to football, with its potential to inflict serious mayhem upon one another. In November of 1875 they held a conference and agreed on a set of rules. The important one here is rule six:

A ball may be caught on the bounce or fly, and carried; the player, so carrying the ball, may be tackled, or shouldered, but not hacked, throttled, or pummeled. No player may be held unless he be in actual possession of the ball. No batting with the hands is allowed.

We need not take too seriously the prohibition on hacking, throttling, or pummeling: they didn’t. The important bit is that a player could catch the ball and run with it. And so the Big Game was born. Over the next few years the other colleges fell into line and adopted the Rugby game.

Stop again and ponder the possibilities. The native Boston version didn’t enthuse anyone outside of Boston, and even Harvard was ready to drop it with unseemly haste once exposed to Rugby. But suppose they hadn’t been exposed? Take as a counterfactual that the McGill game had never come off. It is reasonable to suppose that Harvard would have come around and adopted the Association so that they could compete with Yale. Consider, if you can bear the thought, that Americans discussing soccer today wouldn’t be faking it.

It is too much to ask you to thank Harvard, so instead go out and buy a six pack of Molson and raise a toast next Sunday to our stalwart neighbors to the north. As you do this, close observation will reveal that American football is not, in fact, Rugby. How that happened will be the topic of Part IV.Notes:

  1. Or, the better to display one’s classical education, the traditional Yale cheer: Brekekekex, ko-ax, ko-ax, Brekekekex, ko-ax, ko-ax, O-op, O-op, parabalou, Yale, Yale, Yale, Rah, rah, rah, rah, rah, rah, rah, rah, rah, Yale! Yale! Yale!

    Seriously. I did not make that up. []

  2. Harvard sent its rowing team to Oxford in 1869, and English cricket teams had been visiting American since 1859 []
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Richard Hershberger is a paralegal working in Maryland. When he isn't doing whatever it is that paralegals do, or taking his daughters to Girl Scouts, he is dedicated to the collection and analysis of useless and unremunerative information.

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16 thoughts on “Why Americans Don’t Play Soccer, and Everyone Else Does Part III

  1. Basically, a random match between Harvard and McGill caused the United States to develop the unique game of American football. But for this, we would be playing actual football and our athletes would have entirely different muscle builds.


    • Yep: That’s about it. But it was even more random than that. The McGill game was contingent upon Boston having an unusual carrying game, rather than the much more common kicking game. This only resulted in American football because Harvard is Harvard, and therefore had the enhanced self esteem, reluctantly acknowledged by all those lesser institutions, to push through its wishes. To put it another way, had it been central New Jersey with the oddball carrying game, you don’t suppose Princeton could have persuaded Harvard, do you?


      • The stereotypical build is probably that of a linemen, since they’re the most numerous players. American football is weird for, among other things, having highly specialized positions that prefer different body types; people who don’t think about the sport frequently are liable to forget that.


    • In American football, you can be a useful part of the front seven (requirements have changed somewhat since loosened substitution rules allowed coaches to swap in an entire new set of players when possession switches from offense to defense) with physical strength alone. Conversely, you can’t be part of the front seven at all without some measure of physical strength. This is dictated by the rules regarding restarting play at the line of scrimmage and what is and isn’t allowed when “blocking” – physically impeding a player who doesn’t have the ball.

      In soccer, on the other hand, physical strength is mostly useless, limited mostly to players who are targets of long, high passes, crosses from open play, and free kicks. And even then, height alone can be largely sufficient, c.f. beanpole Peter Crouch. Yes, hand-fighting and shoulder-charging are things, but somewhat avoidable, and with scoring lower than any other football code, fouls caused by overexuberant physical play are far more potentially damaging, providing a mitigating downside to the mugging of wingers and forwards.

      Rugby and Australian football both have tackling (of the same basic kind as the American game, grabbing a ball-carrier between shoulder and knee and dragging him down) as a central skill, but blocking (in open play) isn’t quite as important as in America, where it characterizes scrimmage play. Australians compete far more physically for long balls than soccer players, but their restarts are open, and overall characterized by one-on-one duels rather than massed power. Massed power like the rugby scrum, which is the Trope Namer for a strength-vs-strength competition between multiple men working together.

      So, you’d expect soccer players to be relatively lightly built with a few tall towers playing near one goal or the other. Australians to be a little stouter, but with a few waterbugs built entirely for speed, even the strongest players cut rather than muscle-bound, and no one with an ounce of fat on them. Rugby players to have some truly powerful physical specimens with more power than ball skills, and even the dynamic players having a baseline level of strength. And American football to be well on its way to Arachnidae-level dimorphism between linemen (San Francisco’s right offensive tackle yesterday was 6’8″ and 360 pounds, and while he had a gut on him, he could still move) and skill players (while a good number of important skill players on the opposing side lined up at 5’10”, 190-205, and there are a few around the league more like 5’8″, 180).

      And this is exactly what we do see. A continuum based on the rules regarding how many players are allowed and/or required to trade off endurance for physical strength.


  2. And now for a real comment:

    If I’m correctly interpreting the rules given for the “kicking game” above, the standard play field was about seven feet wide. For reference, that’s about half the width of a curling sheet, and curling has only three players near each other at any given time. That makes for a pretty narrow field!

    As you can see above, I was so intent on finding side bounds for the field that I assumed those were the “goal lines”, running perpendicular to the actual goals rather than in parallel. Did the kicking game just not have side boundaries?


    • This is a description of a pretty informal version. I suspect that, like in Mike’s games, the side boundaries were practical rather than defined. Also, keep in mind that this is a premodern version. Premodern sports by definition are very localized in how they are played. We cannot assume that some other group of boys playing football in a different neighborhood played it the same way.


    • All the lines are optional, even the goal lines (if you allow play behind the goal, it will look like lacrosse, but I’d say it’s legitimate as an ad-hoc variant). Later in the game’s development, and once school pride is on the line, and then professionalism and eventually the pools becoming part of the working week – then you have to get more formal.

      But IIRC even things like requiring a true crossbar on the goal came surprisingly late.


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