Thursday, September 18, 2008

How The French Invented American Football

In the late 19th century, some Ivy league schools began playing rugby, a sport practiced by the upper crust in Britain's elite schools. Practitioners, however, wanted the game to become more uniquely American, and began implementing a series of rule changes (more on this in an upcoming post). However, the most significant strategy change may have made this quintessentially American game more French than American.

When Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics, visited America in the 1890s he met Lorin Deland, a fan of Harvard's team. Deland had read Adolphe Thiers' book on the history of France's Revolution (Histoire du Consulat et de l'Empire) and was struck by the way Napoleon attacked the enemy at their weakest point with a large number of men at just the right time thereby stunning the opposing army and throwing them into a state of chaos. With Coubertin looking on, Deland convinced Harvard's team to adopt Napoleon's tactic of focusing offensive forces on one weak point in the enemy's defense. And with that, the wedge, blocking and brutality came to replace Rugby's spread out game built around passes and kicking.

In 1894 (two years before the first modern Olympiad), Coubertin wrote of one Thanksgiving Day football game he attended, "It was modern Olympism, and rather emotional, I assure you." He continued, "Napoleon looked down on this event from heaven where he has been for only a short while, amnestied by the Lord. It warmed his warrior spirit and he prayed that Saint Peter would, when the day came, allow Mr. Deland, his prophet, to enter heaven straight away" (1).

Vive le NFL!

(1) Pierre de Coubertin. “Napoléon et le football.” Les Sports athlétiques. 5th year, number 198, 13 Jan. 1894, pp. 24-26.


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