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Celebrating 150 Years of Simulated Warfare

Exploring lost causes and vicarious violence on the anniversary of America's first college football scrum

Bill Haber/AP/Shutterstock

On November 6, 1869, Rutgers and Princeton—which, just two weeks earlier, had changed its name from the College of New Jersey—played America’s first official college football game. They followed London Football Association rules: 25 on each side, no throwing the ball, no carrying the ball. Also: no pads, no helmets, no targeting penalties. (Rutgers won, 6-4.) Within a few decades, this unkempt stepchild of soccer, medieval mob football, and rugby had become endemic in New England, the Midwest and the South, a rough ritual of young manhood that quickly became not just a metaphor for war, but the ritual re-enactment of war, complete with demonization of the enemy and plenty of brutality, even death.

It’s hardly surprising that the game took hold in a nation still traumatized by the Civil War. Robert E. Lee surrendered in 1865, but some of the country refused to stop fighting. The Klan and other white supremacists terrorized and murdered former slaves; nativists lynched Italian immigrants and shot Jews. The questions of who was a citizen, and who would have access to education and property, remained unsettled. It’s also unsurprising that, from its earliest days, a game based on invading your opponent’s territory and defending your own soil adopted the discourse of America’s bloodiest conflict from its earliest days. The names of some teams kept—and still keep—Lost Cause embers smoldering.

Louisiana State University’s Tigers are named after a company of homegrown Confederates famous for their audacious attacks at First Manassas. College bands kept playing “Dixie” for more than a century after Fort Sumter; the University of Mississippi (where the football team is named, with no attempt at subtlety, the Rebels) clung to the battle flag and “Dixie” until well into the twenty-first century. The University of Florida played Penn State in the 1962 Gator Bowl, just a year after the Nittany Lions’ star defensive lineman, future Hall of Famer Dave Robinson, had broken the bowl’s color barrier; the Gators played with a Confederate battle flag patch on their helmets to show that despite Appomattox, the South had not really surrendered.

College football gave Johnny Reb a do-over. Any meeting between a team from the North and a team from below Mr. Mason’s and Mr. Dixon’s line was yet another battle in the never-ending War. When the University of Alabama unexpectedly beat the University of Washington in the 1926 Rose Bowl, a Georgia newspaper called it “the greatest victory for the South since the first Battle of Bull Run.” In 1920, when Southern institutions such as Georgia Tech and Kentucky’s Centre College (home of the Prayin’ Colonels) played “Yankee” teams, an Alabama journalist deemed it “the most serious invasion of the North since Lee was stopped at Gettysburg.” The great sportswriter (and grandson of a Confederate officer) Grantland Rice also saw Gettysburg in every matchup. When Southern California defeated the University of Tennessee in 1940, Rice rhapsodized on the Volunteers’ gallantry in defeat: “It was a magnificent charge in a lost cause. It was Pickett at Gettysburg.”

It needn’t be a northern school versus a southern one. Internecine war is the governing metaphor no matter who’s playing. College football is a patchwork of psychic fiefdoms beyond geography or even logic. A couple of hours before this year’s North Carolina–South Carolina game in Chapel Hill, a bro-on-bro donnybrook broke out between a couple dozen floppy-haired, khaki-shorted combatants—half in garnet polo shirts, half in sky-blue polo shirts—slapping, shoving, and occasionally punching each other in a dirt lot littered with fallen cans of Natty Light and cracked Solo cups. What was the issue? Whether barbecue sauce should be mustard or vinegar based? Who should be allowed to call themselves simply “Carolina”? Who knows? Situational hatred works like that. You don’t need a reason for violence: In college football, the violence is the point.

Ohio State and Michigan are both huge, distinguished public universities in the Midwest. They are very similar. They also utterly detest each other. Some commentators date this irrational conflict from the “Toledo War” in 1835, when Ohio and Michigan sent militias to defend a strip of land stretching from Lake Erie to the Indiana border, which each claimed for its own. By the time the Buckeyes and the Wolverines met on the gridiron in 1897, they were primed for ugly combat.

In the early days of the sport, it was literally combat: Between 1869 and 1905, at least 50 young men died playing the game. There were hundreds of broken necks, perforated hearts, catastrophic brain injuries. Horrified at the bloodletting in the 1894 Harvard loss to Yale, The New York Times editorialized, “The record of French duels for the last dozen years fails to show such a list of casualties as this one game of football.” After the 1902 Clemson-South Carolina game, groups of students threatened each other with swords and bayonets in downtown Columbia. In 1897, 17-year-old Richard Von Albade Gammon died of massive head trauma playing for the Georgia Bulldogs against the Virginia Cavaliers. Georgia’s governor and legislature were all set to outlaw college football until Gammon’s mother begged them not to, saying “it would be inexpressibly sad to have the cause Von held so dear injured by his sacrifice.” Dulce et decorum est pro patria morior pro ludo, for that matter.

In case we’re tempted to dismiss it these days as only a game, there are always the flyovers by F-16s, the ROTC color guards, the Special Forces guy parachuting onto the 50-yard line while flags wave and martial music plays, all as the language of “battlefield generals,” “warriors,” and “bombs” prevails on the sideline and in the broadcast booth, reminding us that we are always fighting. College football is war—war and the supposedly acceptable way to express American masculinity—fed to its tribal consumers on a 100-yard field.