In the lead-up to Super Bowl 50, there were plenty of nostalgic looks at the Big Game’s first half-century – the amazing plays, the greatest teams, the best ads and halftime shows. Some commentators also looked ahead to Super Bowl 100, imagining teams based in Barcelona and Beijing, women as coaches and commissioner, and fans watching – or rather, participating in the game – through their virtual reality implants. But others asked the question: as more and more former players are shown to have the brain disease CTE, will football survive for another fifty years? In her new biography of the “father of football,” Yale player and coach Walter Camp, historian Julie Des Jardins looks at the early development of the game as a process of constant change, with lessons for those who love the game today.     

Frederic Remington, "A Run Behind Interference," Harper's Weekly, 1893.

Frederic Remington, “A Run Behind Interference,” Harper’s Weekly, 1893.


Already when he was captain of Yale’s team in the 1880s, Walter Camp proposed changes to football that would establish the game’s foundations, such as starting play at the line of scrimmage and awarding six points for a touchdown. But football continued to be in a process of evolution for decades to come, with Camp playing a central role in shaping the game into the early 20th century. 

That’s the thing the makes football different. There are rule changes in all sports, but there are significant rule changes year by year in football. That’s why Camp becomes the editor of the annual rulebook. Spalding published this every year, and every single team that developed in the United States had to get a copy because the rules changed so drastically. All the way until Camp died in 1925, there were substantive changes to the rulebook every year.

What’s hard to know is, when Camp was in the room with all these other rules-makers, who was the most influential. We don’t have record of the actual conversations. I do know from the side conversations before and afterward, that he’s the one with the most sway when he’s in the room. But sometimes he loses. The perfect example of that is the aerial game. Camp did not want the forward pass. He felt very strongly about it. Once it passed, he worked with it and developed it. But that was one of the rare losses he had. The reason the aerial game didn’t happen as early as it could have was because of him.

Everything else pretty much went the way Walter Camp wanted it, to be honest. I’m trying to think if there were any other substantive changes that he didn’t agree with, and I have to say there were very few – even in the years when football was in peril, when too many men were dying or being maimed on the field and President Roosevelt said, “Look, you’ve got to make some changes to the game.” The changes that end up getting made are, for the most part, ones that Walter Camp wanted to make, except for the forward pass. And even with that, once the forward pass happens, he finds a way to work with it. Unfortunately, it’s also the beginning of Yale’s downfall, because they’re not very good at it. It’s definitely the teams in the West and South that pick up on the forward pass and really come to use it.

Other scholars who have written the institutional history of football have pointed out the connection between Camp’s ideas for the sport and his work in industry, at the New Haven Clock Company. Did you see that as well?

Absolutely. One of the people who was influential to him was Frederick Winslow Taylor, who started the whole idea of scientific management. There’s no doubt that the scientific management you see on the shop floor in an American factory is what Camp was trying to achieve on the gridiron. Before Walter Camp put his hands on the game, there was no clock dictating the stop and start of play. He’s the one who imposes that, which is of course a very important facet of the game – the one that Englishmen would look at and say, “What is this?”

Camp felt that if you had these men working against the clock, you were training them to be efficient. That sort of efficiency, he would tell you, is very American. If you want to create an effective brand of manhood in the modern age, this is how you do it: you make these men work against a clock. So he imposes that on the game, which makes football very much a relic of this industrializing moment.

Camp had a firm notion of the ideals of football and the ideals of American manhood. Something you show in the book is how his ideas of masculinity come across particularly in his creation of the All-America college football team.

Yes, he was so conscious about what that idealized figure was going to look like. Basically, what he originally conceived of was not so much the All-American as the All-America team. It was the group he was fixated on, and how effective this group can be. Of course, he had to come up with individual players who made up the group. But in his mind, he was picking the guys who, when put together, were stronger than their individual, constituent parts. It’s only later that people start to think of the All-America team as made up of the best individuals at any given position. Camp really didn’t want people to think that. Eventually, he realized that everyone was thinking that anyway, and he just ran with it. He was very much about the group concept, but pretty soon he starts to see the rise of the cult of personality in American athletics and that every one is fixated on the individual stand-out. Certainly, by the turn of the twentieth century, that All-American is the iconic figure who is the ultimate man’s man.

He is idealized until the All-Americans start to be someone other than Harvard and Yale white guys. I tried to show that shift, when even Walter Camp admits he has to choose guys who aren’t from the Ivy League, who aren’t from New England, people like Jim Thorpe, for example, who’s at the Carlisle Industrial School in Pennsylvania. Camp ends up picking in 1916 an All-American named Fritz Pollard, who’s an African American man who goes to Brown not because he’s interested in getting an academic degree but because he can play football there. For Pollard, the end game is about becoming a professional athlete.

Camp also starts picking immigrant men, men at state schools, whether California, or Kansas, or Nebraska, and the complexion of the All-American start to change. It’s no longer the elite guy at Harvard, Yale, or Princeton, like it was at the beginning.

You mention Fritz Pollard, who does play in the early NFL, and in the book you discuss Walter Camp’s view of the emergence of professional football. How did Camp reconcile his devotion to the English amateur ideal with this new brand of the sport?

To be honest, I think he spends a long time speaking out both sides of his mouth. He touts the amateur ideal way, way after he knows that it’s finished. He pays lip service to the amateur ideal, and at the same time he sees that there are players being bought and sold. And frankly, he’s making a killing on amateur athletics.

It was hard for me figure out how I wanted to tell this story. It’s not that I think he was dishonest. What I think was going on is that in the United States, athletics become a mode of social mobility for men who were not white or upper-class or students at Harvard or Yale. In England, sport served a very different function. What Camp started to see is that the end game, the score, the actual result starts to be more important. It’s not about how you look when you play, it’s about the outcome, because the outcome is what’s going to create social mobility for the player.

Walter Camp sees this happening, and in some ways, he both accepts it and helps to create the change. He commercializes the game. He makes it bigger than life. He creates a situation where working-class guys can enter football and it can make them into something. And over the time, by 1910, he sees that sport is serving a different function and starts to embrace it.

So professional sports is a path to the American dream of success, a way for his players to attain prosperity?

It’s a mode of stardom in ways that it wasn’t in England. He sees this in Fritz Pollard, for example. Up until this point, the reason you wanted to play football in college was that this is where you learned the skills to become an effective man in your college afterlife. But then he starts to see that for many of these men the college afterlife was more football or more sports.

In fact, Camp wanted to play football after college, but he thought, “I can’t do that in any sort of way that would be respectable for a Yale guy.” But he starts to see that it is a respectable life after college for generations after him.

As you mentioned, Camp was a central figure in the debates about football at the turn of the century. And something you point out in the book are the parallels between debates about football then and debates today, with fears about players’ safety, studies being done about players’ health, and changes to rules and equipment. One thing that’s interesting about Camp’s role in this debate is that he argued for an essence of football. Yes, he said, we must attend to player safety, but there is something about the game that can’t be lost. And this is an argument that is still made today.

One of the things Camp was obsessed with, that we see today, was the narrative tension in the game. Any time you tweak something on the offensive side, you had to tweak something on the defensive side to keep it competitive. He hated when one side had an edge.

I feel that’s going on now, particularly with the changes that have been made about tackling with the helmet. A lot of people were critical of this, saying that defenders wouldn’t have the same arsenal of tools. I think in some way they were fearful of the same thing he was, that you’re going to lose that competitive tension in the game, which is really a narrative tension.

He was also concerned that if you take the physicality away, you take away the game’s ability to make alpha males, basically. This is a much more fundamental sort of ideology that’s being created in the game, that boys become men through a process of physical hardening and a creation of moral courage that only happens through this physicality. I very much see this going on in debates about the game still.

You know, there is this idea that if a guy has bell rung on the field, he doesn’t want to acknowledge it openly. You have to walk it off. This was the same way that Camp would talk about football and the creation of moral and physical courage on the field. You see this even in the fiction he wrote for young boys. He wrote about the captain who knew he was injured and was in agony, but the pain principle told him that he had to stay out there because he was the leader. I was watching a game a couple weeks ago – I’m trying to remember which quarterback it was, but he was clearly concussed and refused to get out of the game. Now of course, they have protocols where he has to get out. But there is clearly the idea that he’s never going to take himself out of the game, so you need to have medical professionals make that decision for him. A real man wouldn’t make the decision to remove himself. Walter Camp would say the very same thing.

How did the process of researching and writing this book change your view of football?

It’s funny. When I told my editor that this was the book I wanted to write, she was worried that it was going to be a schizophrenic book. She imagined that because I do a lot of gender theory, I was going to be very critical of the game. She said, “Do you even like football?” I said, “Believe it or not, I watch football every Sunday.” And she said, “Oh, thank God. We can work with that.”

The book made me realize what I appreciate about the game – that it’s OK to appreciate the game and yet still understand it needs some massive reform to continue. I think it was hard for me to admit that I like the game and that I saw the problems in the game, until I started researching this book. Now I’ve seen how much the game has evolved.

Walter Camp never feared change. He said football is going to stick around when other games become irrelevant. He said football will always be a culturally relevant game. He designed it to have room for malleability. So I think we can make the changes in the game that we need to make it safer, in dealing with CTE and everything else, and yet still have something compelling, something with that competitive tension he wanted.

It makes me more hopeful now. I feel a lot of people who really like football think they can’t be critical of it. After reading this book and seeing how critical people were in the beginning and how much the game had to be reformed and how much it’s evolved, you see that we can still have a compelling game, that it will still be popular, and yet we can make changes to it. I think people now are scared about changing the game. But if you have more historical context, you’d be less scared of that.


The complete interview about the book Walter Camp: Football and the Modern Man is available at the New Books in Sports podcast.

Julie Des Jardins is author of The Madame Curie Complex: The Hidden History of Women in Science and two other books on gender and American history. She is on Twitter @jedesjardins. 


Julie Des Jardins, Walter Camp: Football and the Modern Man.

Oxford University Press, 2015. 416 pp. ISBN: 9780199925629