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This Sunday, the Minnesota Vikings will open their season against the Atlanta Falcons in Minneapolis. It will be a rough game, but a disciplined and structured one. There are rules and referees to enforce them, and there are plays and coaches to design them.
But American football, like Association football (soccer), Gaelic football, or Australian Rules football, among others, is descended from a much older game, and one which was both less disciplined and less structured. This was the ‘folk football’ played in the towns and villages of England.
Matches were often played on holidays and feast days, such as Shrove Tuesday. They are documented as far back as the 1100s. In the late 12th century, William FitzStephen described a match in London
After lunch, all the youth of the city go out into the fields to take part in a ball game. The students of each school have their own ball; the workers from each city craft are also carrying their balls. Older citizens, fathers, and wealthy citizens come on horseback to watch their juniors competing, and to relive their own youth vicariously: you can see their inner passions aroused as they watch the action and get caught up in the fun being had by the carefree adolescents.
But the matches were rowdy affairs which frequently degenerated into riots. In 1314, Edward II banned the game in London, his decree reading
[f]orasmuch as there is great noise in the city caused by hustling over large foot balls in the fields of the public from which many evils might arise which God forbid: we command and forbid on behalf of the king, on pain of imprisonment, such game to be used in the city in the future.
Nevertheless, the games continued. Indeed, ‘folk football’ continues in parts of England to this day. The video below shows a match from this year in the town of Atherstone in Warwickshire (NSFW).
From Atherstone to the US Bank Stadium
When English people moved to the American colonies they took this folk football with them and it was just as rough as back home. In 1657 the city fathers of Boston banned it because
players in the streets disrupted traffic and trade with their games and even made it dangerous to walk or just stand in the city’s narrow streets.
The ban was republished in 1677 and 1701, suggesting that it might have been widely ignored.
From this ancestor came soccer, whose rules – very different to today’s – were laid down in English public schools in the mid 19th century. These rules quickly spread. In 1869, Princeton and Rutgers played a game under rules similar to soccer, with 25 men on each side, with Rutgers winning 6-4.
The big change came in 1871. Handling was outlawed in soccer and a group of disaffected ‘handlers’ broke away to found the rugby football union. This game, rather than soccer, became popular in the colleges of the United States. Harvard adopted handling rules known as the ‘Boston Game’ and in 1874 played McGill, who played rugby, under compromise rules. The game was a success and Yale, Princeton, and Rutgers all switched to the Harvard rules. In 1873, Walter Camp watched a soccer match between Yale and Eton. He thought that having 11 players per team as opposed to 15, as rugby did, would make for a better game. He also proposed replacing rugby’s scrum with the line of scrimmage. These proposals were adopted by a convention of American colleges in 1876 and American football, as we know it now, was born.
It has been a long and winding road from the back streets of medieval London via 17th century Boston to the U.S. Bank Stadium this weekend. But, when the Vikings’ millionaire stars look at the men of Atherstone battering each other in the streets, they are looking at cousins, however distant.
John Phelan is an economist at the Center of the American Experiment.