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How Teddy Roosevelt Ended Unfettered Football and Saved the Game

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I was at the College Football Hall of Fame in South Bend this weekend. I learned many fascinating things about the history of football, including the fact that the first football game was played between Rutgers and Princeton in New Brunswick, NJ, five minutes from where I grew up. Incidentally, Rutgers won that game (that would be the last game they ever won, or so it seems).

But two facts stuck out among everything else. First, there is no tradition of football, outside of change. The game has changed a countless number of times. The shape of the ball has changed, the number of people who play has changed, how many yards you need for a first down has changed (Fun trick question: How many yards did you need for a first down when the game first started? None, you just had to keep possession; teams were known to sit on the ball for a whole half), the tackling and blocking rules have changed and the forward pass itself is a change to the rules.

Two conclusions flow from that for me. 1. College football should definitely have a playoff system. Any argument based on football tradition is absolute nonsense. The real football tradition is constant change. 2. Most arguments for tradition over change have no sense of history. Change makes the world go around.

The second important fact I got from my visit to the Hall of Fame was that strict rules and regulations were needed to save football. In 1905, the game had grown increasingly violent (it was always violent, but 18 people died that year alone with only a tiny fraction of the teams we have now). Some argued that lack of regulations made football what it was. That excessive rule making would kill off the game. In essence, they argued for unfettered football.

But instead of unfettered football, what you were getting instead was a bogged down game that was so chaotic that it was turning people off and killing the sport (and literally, its players). That's when Teddy Roosevelt stepped in. He called in the Big Three of the time -- Harvard, Yale and Princeton. He told them that they had to regulate the game, create more rules to make it less violent and chaotic and bring order to the sport.

At first, people resisted. But after the new rules were put into place, the game absolutely flourished. It turns out you need rules for a game to work. Now, I fear I am going to take this analogy too far, but it seems to me that we have the same problem with the free markets today. Some argue that unfettered markets will regulate themselves, but that is not natural. Any game will be pushed to the limit of its rules and people will naturally try to get away with as much as possible.

In order for capitalism to thrive -- like the other great American tradition, football -- it has to be regulated and sensible rules have to be put into place. These rules don't hurt the game, they are essential to it. Without rules, you have anarchy. Smart rules and regulations help set the boundaries for a good, clean game.

We shouldn't be afraid to do now what Roosevelt did back then -- step in, set clear guidelines and then let the games begin. Football took off after it got cleaned up and regulated. The free markets can do the same if everyone is given fair rules to play by.

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