“Opposed to the game of football” was a headline in the Deseret News on Dec. 8, 1905. Too many injuries and even the death of a Utah football player in a game during the 1900 season combined to create a ban on football at the Provo school.
Football was played at then-Brigham Young Academy from 1896-1903. But, about the same time as the Brigham Young University name came along in 1903, the sport of football was discontinued there for some 16 years.
A report in the Nov. 18, 1908, Salt Lake Tribune notes that all schools operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would now ban football. The matter had been under review for a year and many students petitioned for football, but it was considered too violent and too injury prone.
This wasn't just an LDS Church stand against football. Institutions all over the U.S. at the time, such as Harvard and Columbia, were also against the sport for its brutality.
"Not for gentlemen" was a common saying at schools that banned football.
"Football is a hospital feeder," was another slogan against gridiron play.
Nationwide, there were at least 45 deaths and hundreds of serious injuries reported from the 1905 college football season.
That year, U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt met with sports officials from Harvard, Yale and Princeton to hopefully get football injuries reduced. Roosevelt’s sons played the game, and he wasn’t out to halt the sport, just make it safer to play.
“Present football is too dangerous” was a Nov. 19, 1909, Salt Lake Tribune headline about the University of Chicago schools banning the game. Schools in New York State banned all football games in 1909, citing, “bones were broken and pupils otherwise injured.” By 1910, the University of Kansas also banned football.
Some football rules had been changed in the early 1900s to try and make it safer, but numerous injuries still continued.
The Utah State Legislature had House Bill 165 proposed in 1909, that would have halted all football play in the state — especially at the University of Utah and the Agricultural College. However, the bill was finally withdrawn before a vote.
In BYU's case, it was the General Board of Education of the LDS Church, which prompted the ban on football. According to the Deseret News, some students left BYU or didn't attend there because of this ban.
(Of course, no one dreamed back then that BYU would ever be the national champion in college football, as it was in 1984, some 64 years after the ban was lifted.)
Finally, more rules were changed and advances in football equipment both helped make the game safer for players.
Football returned to BYU in 1919 as an intramural sport. The next two seasons BYU had limited college play and finally the Cougars had a full football season in 1922, though the team’s record was a dismal 1-5.
Yet football was perhaps its most brutal in the late 19th century. The Ogden Standard-Examiner reported this in 1885 about the Ogden High Football team:
“The boys have laid in a good supply of shin plaster, and for a week or past, they have had a carpenter busily engaged in manufacturing crutches. Several competent surgeons have been retained for the occasion (upcoming game) and will be in attendance.”
It also wasn’t just brutality that canceled football games in the early 20th century either. An Oct 3, 1908, game of the University of Utah’s freshman team against Ogden High was canceled due to bad weather. A few years later, a soggy, wet field also canceled a game.
In addition, a November 1907 gridiron contest of West High School against Ogden High was canceled by the Board of Education due to rowdy, public disturbances caused by Salt Lake players in their improper advertising of the upcoming game.
Finally, college teams routinely played high school teams in Utah during the early 20th century. In October 1912, the University of Utah freshman team whipped Ogden High 56-0. With a shortage of other prep teams in the area back then, preps even played college teams as far away as Montana, to fill their schedules.
Lynn Arave worked as a newspaper reporter for more than 40 years. He is a retired Deseret News reporter/editor, from 1979-2011. His email is [email protected]. His Mystery of Utah History blog is at mysteryofutahhistory.blogspot.com.