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  < Back to Table Of Contents  < Back to Topic: Sporting America

article number 243
article date 06-13-2013
copyright 2013 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
What’s Wrong with Professional Football, 1927
by Bill Roper, Princeton Football Coach
   

From the 1927 book, Football Today and Tomorrow.

“WHAT do you think”—friends and acquaintances are continually asking me— “of the future of professional football? Will it last? Is it a good thing?”

Yes and no. There are too many “ifs” in answering such a question, too much to be said for and against professional football to be summed up in one short, sweeping statement.

Professional football, in the main, is merely a parasitical outgrowth of the college game, exploited by fight-promoters, moving picture men and public spirited citizens of equally public spirited communities.

Its purpose is to provide entertainment, recreation, for the spectators—putting on a show, a travesty, a three ringed circus. The promoters, who know little of the spirit behind the college game, and care less, make no false pretenses about the game. They are merely business enterprisers, gambling with public interest and favor.

I have no quarrel with professional football. All things being equal, I think the promoters are managing their “show” as cleanly as it can be managed. Its effect on the college game is negligible, for the professional game lacks the flame, the spirit, that keeps the college game going upward and onward in the appreciation of the general public as a hard, bristling sport; compelling in spirit and inspiring in sentiment.

A quarter of a century of football, as player, fan and coach, have taught me first of all that the game is played, not by eleven men, but by eleven hundred or eleven thousand—by the whole student body and graduate body of the institution, large or small, which these men represent.

   

College football is interwoven with college life. The spectacle, with student bands, organized cheering, enhanced by the color and intense emotional stimulus of a big game cannot be duplicated on the soil of a big league baseball park or in the shadows of mills and factories. The synthetic counterfeits of collegiate enthusiasm manufactured by the professional clubs have been as successful and inspiring as a Sunday school picnic on a rainy day.

It takes something more compelling than a pay check to arouse the flaming courage, the grit and endurance manifested on the gridiron against the background of Gothic buildings, shaded lawns and familiar faces of classmates. It takes spirit, college spirit. The only analogy, I think, is love of country.

This may sound like the loose and windy bombast of the common collegiate spellbinder. My experience, however, has convinced me that there must be some strong, underlying motive, some form of tangible loyalty—to a coach, a team or an institution, prompted by the heat of hard competitive sport, to bring about the best results in football.

The most damning evidence against professional football is the attitude of the players themselves.

Of course it is not expected that they will emulate Phil Brett, the Rutgers captain of 1891, who, sitting on the field after suffering a broken leg against Princeton, said between sobs that “I’d die for Dear Old Rutgers,” which proved to be a burden on him ever since. That is asking too much. But stories of the other extreme are too common to be ignored as exceptional.

There is the story of a great football player, fresh from the triumphs of the campus who was lured into the game not so much for the money but because he really glowed and reveled in the clash of flesh against flesh and would miss a meal rather than an opportunity to hit the line.

   
A “professional” team, the Green Bay Packers.

In his first game his team was behind. The college star was the only man who gained consistently against the opponents. He carried the ball for three straight times, gaining ten, fifteen and ten yards at a clip. Panting, but eager to keep going, he asked the quarterback to take it again.

“Aw, take it easy kid,” warned the veteran quarterback of many professional campaigns. “Cut the rah-rah stuff and make some of these hirelings do some work. They’re making a sucker out of you.”

The quarterback called for the fullback to take the ball. He protested. “I’ve got a bad knee.” The other halfback was called. He could scarcely walk, he said, let alone carry the ball.

“Aw, right,” yelled the quarterback. “I’ll take it. I’ve got 200 bucks on this game.”

Later, in the dressing room, after the game was decided in favor of the collegian’s team, with himself and the quarterback carrying the burden, the collegian talked over professional football with the seasoned veteran.

“The slogan of the professional athlete” said the quarterback, “is: Don’t get hurt; we play again tomorrow, and you’re no good to the team or yourself lying on a hospital cot.

“After all,” he continued. “We’re not kidding ourselves in this game. Tomorrow the sun will come up and next winter it will snow and be just as cold and if I don’t lay something away I’ll be just as broke and oh, who cares anyhow!

“The spectators come to see some spectacular runs and get a few thrills. They don’t relish a stonewall defense on the one yard line. They want to see some galloping ghost cut loose for ten or twenty yards through a broken field—and this bird’ll not disappoint them.

“I’ve missed more tackles than I could shake a stick at. And if more fellows would forget they ever played college football the way I do, they’d be turning ‘em away at the gate.”

That is not the expression of one player; it is the creed of the majority and sums up professional football. Until the attitude of the player changes the game has a very hazy and dubious future.

   
The Chicago Bears Football Club moved from Decatur Illinois earlier in this decade.

There is something distinctive about football. I can easily understand a professional making a living pole-vaulting, playing tennis, golf or baseball. The usual run of sports demand less than football, which depends solely on the spirit motivating the players.

The demands of football are such that the player, to be right, must keep in splendid physical condition. In the majority of cases, with the professional players selling bonds, insurance and real estate, working as dentists, lawyers, hustling ice and milk and baggage, as well as living about in clubs and hotels, any form of systemized training so essential to real football is impossible.

What is the result? The professional men cannot give their all. They cannot let go. They know that if they are injured they are off the payroll until they are ready for action again. A really serious injury puts them out for good.

The men who play are not fools. They know they are not in the physical shape of their college days. They are leading different kinds of existence, not so particular about their waistline and conscious that they are slowing up and getting brittle. Many of them are married.

The easy money of the professional game made it possible for them to get settled, in comparison with their classmates engaged in slower but more permanent positions. With love of wife and home and social interests bearing down on them it is only natural that they would go through the motions of football with as little as possible bodily danger.

   

Last fall one of the famous college players who went into the game talked with a group of his former team mates about the professional football.

“I expect to play in at least twenty-two games this season,” he said, “at — per game. Like to know where I could make that much money doing anything else.”

“That is,” interrupted one of the gathering, “if you don’t get hurt.”

“Oh, I’ll see that I don’t,” assured the professional. “We’ve got a hustling club, for pro’s. I picked up a lot of players from small colleges who are out to show up the players like myself with big reputations. I’m all for it and let them go right ahead.

“I stand right behind them and swear at them in the line and tell them to get in there and fight—to smear those birds—so I won’t have to do it. “But I’ve got to keep my head up,” continued the professional who was a glutton for punishment and one of the best defensive halfbacks in college. “The old urge to let go and take a leap at some cocky bird coming through is awfully strong. I did it last week in Chicago and cured myself for life. It’s a dangerous habit.

“This fellow came tearing through the line like a bowlegged panther. There was nothing between him and our goal but yours truly.

“In an unguarded moment I forgot myself—a reflex action—I guess, or something—but I let go and hit him head on at the knees.

“He was all knees. My face looked like a drunken sailor’s when I got up.

“Well, you can bet I didn’t bother that fellow with the knees that afternoon. I gave him the right of way and every-time he cut loose I just wasn’t within tackling distance. Of course I ran after him—but not fast enough.”

This player also said that the idea of the game was to give the spectators a “run for their money” between the twenty yard lines. Then the players tightened up and played real football within the shadow of the goal posts.

   

The position of professional football is indeed a precarious one and I regret to see the game die out entirely because of overexploitation. Big Bill Edwards, president of one of tie professional leagues during the past year, when the revival of the professional game was rather auspicious, expressed an opinion several years ago which, I believe, still holds:

“Football will never be commercialized,” he wrote in the Philadelphia North American on December 4th, 1920. “The essential features of the game, the demands it makes on the players spiritually, the innate sportsmanship it requires of its adherents make the probability remote of it ever being exploited professionally with any degree of success.”

Circumstances do alter cases and no doubt Mr. Edwards changed his mind regarding professional football in the intervening time since he wrote the above and assumed the office of president of the professional football league.

But I still find Mr. Edwards’ statement sound and logical. It is just as good today as when he wrote it and will be so ten years hence.

Football thrives on one thing—spirit. That spirit must be real, fostered by a common interest and working toward a common end for an institution, a place, or an ideal. Mere football for football’s’ sake will never go, except spasmodically.

There is a spirited community in the outlying section of Philadelphia where professional football thrives under the only conditions possible for the game.

That football is possible outside the college campus, that it can be a real thing and can go on, year after year, with a steady popularity is illustrated by the Frankford Yellowjackets.

The Yellowjackets, I believe, won the professional championship of the United States last season. They did not have the biggest names or the highest priced stars in their lineup. But they played real football, under ideal football conditions, with every man, woman and child in the community cheering for them.

Frankford is an interesting place. An industrial center, primarily, bubbling over with civic pride. The Yellowjackets belong to the community, with the residents owning jointly the stock. Every dollar taken in at the gate over expenses is expended towards the welfare of Frankford—Not a nickel is made by the promoters.

The players, like Tex Hamer, former Pennsylvania Captain, have played there for several years; live in the community, and are in business there. The newcomers are invited around to the homes of the residents for dinner, bridge and social gatherings. Every football player is known by his first name and in turn knows hundreds in the community in the same way. This sort of thing breeds a natural interest and spirit.

   
The Yellow Jackets of Philadelphia defeat the New York Football giants in the first professional game at the Polo Grounds. Score 14-0. Note that at least nine players are standing.

In these days of football exploitation, with all-star aggregations trouping about the country like so many circuses, it is worth the time of anyone to wander out to Frankford on a Saturday afternoon in the autumn.

A steady stream of men and women and children flowing toward the football field. On the arms of girls are the colors of the Yellowjackets, in their hands, pennants. They cheer for the players because they know them, because it is their team. They have a clannishness that is refreshing, that would put many colleges to shame—and very few of them ever saw a college.

Football started in Frankford many years ago, an outgrowth of the game which spread through all the industrial centers of Pennsylvania. The residents liked the game, liked the idea of watching their boys play against a neighboring team. They did not know that the playing lacked the finesse, the skill and interest of the high school games, but it was their team, their boys; and they stood behind them.

From this sand-lot aggregation has developed a great community organization, very wealthy and powerful in the section, with football making enough money to carry their sports program—just like the college game.

Today the name of Frankford Yellowjackets is the biggest in the realm of professional football. It is supported by working people from the surrounding factories, mills and offices, as well as the local business men. Football means the Yellowjackets and the differentiation between intercollegiate and professional football means nothing at all to them.

Communities like Frankford are the rock foundation of the professional game. There are many such places scattered over the country,—Green Bay, Wis., Clifton heights, etc.,—made up of commercial and industrial people with an aptitude for all kinds of competitive sport.

Modern football has a tremendous appeal to these men working in mills, factories and offices. They have imagination and respond to the thrill of the man against man clashes in football. They play baseball in the summer and basketball in the winter and are adept at it.

   
Frankford Yellow-Jackets, a professional team with a local heart.

Just as the majority of our major league ball players come from this class of people, so too, could men of the professional game be recruited from their ranks.

In the coal regions of Pennsylvania, where the professional game has flourished for years, they developed many such players. One of them is known far better than “Red” Grange will ever be in that section. His name is “Blue” Bonner, a backfield star, now living at Pottsville. He made college players coming into that section look like the schoolboys they were.

My contention is that if the professional promoters get the majority of their players from the industrial groups they can do more with them in the way of training, etc., than with the college star fresh from the campus.

The college ball player, for all the bunk written to the contrary, has not been a howling success as a professional. For the same reason he will not, in the majority of cases, make a go of professional football.

His heart isn’t in the game. It isn’t a case of play or starve. He has his education to fall back on and his memories of stirring contests during his college days, which makes the professional game seem dull and flat and cheap.

But the youth who has had nothing but the dull routine of a factory or a coal mine staring him in the face, who has a natural craving for blue skies and green turf and the competition of football and baseball, the life of a professional athlete is the peak of romance and human achievement. He’ll get in there and fight for all he’s got.

I remember watching one of these teams play in Philadelphia. They were called the Homestead Professionals and could have beaten the average college team with eight men.

This type of athlete has been all but ignored by the promoters exploiting the popularity of football. They filled their lineups with names, not players, and let it go at that. Joe Merriwell, who made that great run against Siwash in 1917 is still playing on his reputation, although he has a few chins, a rotund figure and no wind at all.

There will always be great college players who love the game of football so much that they will continue to play it until forced to the sidelines with bad knees, broken legs or old age. “Red” Grange, I believe, is of this type.

Last summer, when Grange was working in Hollywood on his football picture, he made such an impression as an actor that the moving picture people offered him more money to remain there than he could have made speculating with professional football. “Red” refused. Football was his game, the breath of life to him and more important than money.

   
“Red” Grange. Most talented of player in football history.

There are few “Red” Granges. But there are equally as many in the college football ranks as in the baseball ranks. We will always have the Sislers, just as we have the Granges.

With a proper blending of athletes from the colleges and sand-lots, and one league in the country, professional football will go. And on merit and skill alone.

When men love a game, they will make sacrifices for it. With players who are really “sold” on football as a means of livelihood, and with the right type of man in charge who selects his team and demands of them the restrictions placed on the college athlete, professional football will be a game apart, something just as good, if not better from a playing standpoint, than the college game.

But it is not to be expected that the professional team will outdraw the college eleven. That is asking too much and the teams should not be compared. The professionals game can be played on Sundays in cities like New York and Chicago with the assurance that enough people will turn out to see a real football game. They could play on Saturdays in places like Frankford.

There is money in professional football but not enough to have the sport continue in an exploited, circus-like manner employed by the promoters, who, after all, handled it like a boxing bout, a show and band concert.

It has as much chance of permanence as professional baseball but will never become as popular as the summer pastime because it will be first, last and always, of minor importance to the intercollegiate game of football.

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