When Rugby Lost Out To Football
There was a time when rugby might have become America’s contact sport and Monday morning office chats might have mused around tries, scrums and drop-kicks instead of touchdowns, quarterbacks and field goals.
Like two rival siblings, rugby and American football grew up together and later followed their own separate paths. One gained a widespread following and prospered, while the other fell under its shadow and languished.
With 32 franchises competing in the NFL today, the league is a sporting behemoth in American culture. Professional teams draft young players from NCAA programs that serve as incubators and release them on the gridiron in front of millions of loyal fans.
In contrast, professional rugby in the U.S. never lasted more than a year. PRO Rugby was introduced in 2016 with 5 teams but then folded 9 months later. In college, the NCAA doesn’t even oversee men’s rugby, leaving the un-padded and un-helmeted recreation to fall under the auspices of USA Rugby.
But go back to the early 20th century and the scene was different. Rugby and football were vying for supremacy at American colleges and potentially, for the hearts and minds of the sporting heartland.
Adopted in the 1870’s, rugby made its way in America through the collegiate system. The Ivy Leagues promoted it on the east coast, while out west British expats popularized the game in California.
The rough and tumble sport started showing its American features after Yale graduate Walter Camp sought to bring order to what he regarded as mob chaos in the game.
Camp dropped the number of players on a side from 15 to 11, introduced the line of scrimmage and the center snap-back, and implemented a system of downs for moving the ball.
The new rules departed from the rugby conventions of the day and while they caught on over time, the game remained incurably violent. Crippling injuries and even deaths were not uncommon.
Football came to a head in 1905 when 19 players died from injuries sustained on the field. It was during this period and the next decade when rugby challenged football as the preferred college sport.
The “football crisis” prompted President Teddy Roosevelt to force colleges to adopt safer guidelines. Some newly-created rules, including the legalization of the forward pass intended to open up the game, weren’t popular.
While the game’s future was being debated on the east coast, Stanford and UC-Berkeley abandoned football altogether in favor of rugby. Their annual “Big Game” meet-up, contested since 1892, was played under rugby rules from 1906-1914. Other colleges and high schools picked up the rugby code as well.
But rugby’s momentum was stopped cold following the visit of New Zealand’s All-Blacks team in 1913. Playing at least a dozen exhibition matches against various California colleges, the kiwis crushed the Americans at every opportunity. The All-Blacks even thrashed the best of an All-American squad 51-3. The effect on the sport and its national support was profound.
The San Francisco Post wrote “…we have not yet learned how to play rugby. It is still a foreign game”. Spalding’s Guide reported “…we have not mastered the rudiments of rugby”.
Sports programs returned to football and rugby began its slow march towards national irrelevance. The game’s last hurrah for the Americans was at the 1920 and 1924 Olympics where the U.S. rugby team won gold.
Some argue that rugby was doomed from the start, but it remains one of the great might-have-beens in American sports history.
TENNIS June 12, 2009 Former German tennis star Boris Becker weds model Sharlely Kerssenberg in St. Moritz, Switzerland; the couple would separate in 2018. Turning professional in 1984, Becker won six grand slam singles- 2 Australian, 3 Wimbledon, 1 US Open- and retired 15 years later. At age 17, Becker was the youngest male at the time to claim a grand slam when he won Wimbledon in 1985.
SOCCER June 19, 1999 Team USA dispatches Denmark 3-0 at the opening round of the Women’s World Cup, which was held in the U.S. The ladies would go on to sweep Group A and defeat Germany at the quarterfinals, Brazil at the semifinals and China in penalties (5-4) for the World Cup title. With over 90,000 spectators in attendance at the Rose Bowl, it was the most watched event ever in women’s sports.
BASKETBALL June 13, 1989 The Detroit Pistons sweep the Los Angeles Lakers 4-0 for their first NBA championship. The tournament was a rematch of the previous year’s series which saw the Lakers defeat the Pistons 4-3. Detroit’s Joe Dumars was named MVP for averaging 27.3 ppg. The Pistons would go on to wear the national crown again in 1990 after defeating the Portland Trail Blazers 4-1.
GOLF June 17, 1979 Hale Irwin takes the U.S. Open, firing an even 284 and beating former champions Gary Player and Jerry Pate by two strokes. It was the second major victory for Irwin, who went on to win his third and last in 1990; all three majors were at the U.S. Open. Irwin turned professional in 1968 and is the all-time leader in the PGA Tour Champions (seniors > 50) with 45 wins, including 7 senior majors.