Over the two months that I have been reading old American newspapers, I noticed a trend in reports on football games: they were brutally violent. In 1913, 175 players had been injured and fourteen football players had died.
Prominent in these articles were reports of football concussions. This is striking, because concussions today qualify as probably the singular number one concern of the National Football League. The "concussion crisis" is usually framed as a modern issue, one whose real ramifications we're just learning about today. Yet here concussions were, dancing along front pages before even World War I. I decided to dig deeper into this issue that has been headline news for, in fact, over one hundred years.
Humans have been playing ball games for thousands of years. In fact, when people in Mesoamerica decided to use a round object for entertainment, their activity was known simply as the ball game. These games were not peaceful affairs. In Mayan society, the losing team's captain would be sacrificed to the gods, while the winners were celebrated even after death. Fortunately, violent though it may be, such practices are not in place in American football.
American football arose in the eastern universities of Harvard, Yale, and Dartmouth. These early games were little more than an excuse to run and hit people. With large numbers of men participating in organized violence, there was an effort to ban these "games" at the universities. In 1855, football was done away with.
Though banished, Ivy League school students and faculty wanted to bring the game back. In 1873, a committee met in New York City, with representatives from Columbia, Yale, Princeton, and Rutgers. They established a set of rules to govern the game, though these rules resembled rugby more than what we know of football today. Harvard refused to be part of the meeting because their style of play was more comparable to soccer.
It soon became apparent that the new rules didn't reduce violence in football. In 1877, a young man at Princeton, E. F. Crosby, nephew of the school's chancellor, was knocked unconscious during a game between sophomores and freshmen. After he regained consciousness, he was taken home where a doctor treated him. In the newspaper article from The Sun, the treating doctor stated:
The young man has been delirious at intervals and is by no means out of danger. Such a concussion as that which he received may result in any one of several serious diseases, such as inflammation of the brain or brain fever.
In 1877, not only did doctors recognize the symptoms of a concussion, but knew that "several serious" brain diseases could be caused by such a hit to the head. However, this doctor went on the reassure people that, "there is no necessity for being alarmed about his recovery." In his opinion, whatever brain trauma that had been sustained would go away within a few weeks. Concussions in the 1800s were well known to cause death if the blow were severe enough. However, only occasionally does one find reports detailing any long term effects of brain injury.
Though these reports were rare, it is clear that the medical profession knew concussions could effect the mental health of an individual years down the line. In 1886, H. H. Pearson Jr. was on trial for murder. His defense brought in Dr. W. R. Pike to testify for Pearson's mental instability. Dr. Pike had worked as the medical superintendent at an insane asylum for nine years at this point and answered questions regarding the long term effects of concussions on the mental health of an individual.
As reported in The Salt Lake Herald on Nov. 5, 1886, in a murder case, a concussion sustained at the age of eleven was used to justify the actions of the defendant. Dr. Pike went on to explain that the brain, after sustaining such damage, would be more susceptible to alcohol and excitement, the combination of which resulted in the death of a man at the hands of Pearson. A concussion can change a "bright power" into a "morose and sullen one."
In 2007, Ira Cassan, the chair of the NFL's Mild Traumatic Brain Injury (MTBI) committee, gave an interview with HBO about the long term effects of head injuries.
Question: "Is there any evidence, as far as you're concerned, that links multiple head injuries among pro football players with depression."
More than one hundred years prior to this interview, Dr. W. R. Pike would have answered that same question with an emphatic "yes."
This is an excerpt from an article written by Jeremy Shea and originally published on Yester. To read the full article, including the stunning death tolls from football seasons in the early 1900s and the creation of the first helmet, click here.