Ragnar Redbeard on the Ethics of Football

Ragnar Redbeard on the Ethics of Football

American Football / Slugball / Gridiron

The Chicago Tribune, December 7, 1896.

Chicago, Dec. 4.—[Editor of The Tribune.]

I desire to offer a word or two of criticism upon your anti-slugball article of yesterday. First, you must be aware that deep down in human nature—especially in Anglo-Teutonic human nature—is a craving for war and struggle and danger. This instinctive craving can never be entirely suppressed, because it is organic. However, when paternalism in government and humanitarianism in religion control the public mind wars become few and the struggle for existence (in its physical sense) almost obliterated. Here is where football comes in. It provides young men surging with molten vitality with an opportunity to display courage, daring, Spartan fortitude, and supreme contempt of physical pain or injury.

A Thousand Books of Fame

Are not all these virtues of the noblest kind?

You may preach humanitarianism till the old earth becomes a rolling sepulcher, but as long as man is man you cannot entirely destroy the Anglo-Teutonic passion for deeds of daring. Not even if the danger to life and limb was a thousand times greater than the danger to life and limb in a mere football match. Secondly, all great nations have grown up to power, not by deeds of “merciful kindness” but by deeds of unmerciful warfare. Its soldiers and its statesmen have been trained not only to be intellectual athletes but to personally enjoy all the dangers incident to Homeric warfare. Just look up the story, of Greece or Rome or Scandinavia and see how our iron-limbed forefathers were trained on the campus, the doomring, with sword and buckler, and all that pertains to actual warfare. Even the England of today owes her vigor and supremacy to the personal encounters in school and college that her young men delight in. Well might it be said that England’s power and influence in the councils of Europe have their origin in the athletic and aquatic tournaments. Again, I boldly assert that even the gladiatorial games of ancient Rome, with all their anathematized “brutality,” really did more good than harm. When they were a public institution Rome was the mistress of the world and “to be a Roman was greater than to be a King”; but when Christlingism triumphed it abolished the gladiatorial sports and substituted the humanities,” “the beatitudes,” and from that day to this the Roman character has steadily retrograded. Look at the stunted Italian laborer of modern times. Look at him in the sewers of Chicago! Can he be compared in physique, endurance, or brain power with the grand old heathen legionaries who fought and vanquished beneath the eagles of Marius, Scipio, Sulla, Domitian, and the Caesars? Therefore I say if America is to lead the world—nay, conquer the world someday—it must breed and train men in millions who are not afraid of death or a broken limb—a bruises incident to personal encounters.

If a few men are killed in the training what does that matter? Are men not plentiful enough? Indeed, the only fault I have to find with football is that it is not dangerous enough. There is too much padding about it, far too much. If there was more danger in it only the very best and strongest could take part therein and the fittest would survive, as they must do anyhow.


[The defense of slugball as set forth by our correspondent is hardly worthy of consideration, as, when reduced to its substance, he proceeds upon the theory that manliness is the outcome of brutality, which is both a dangerous and abhorrent assumption. His argument, so far as it applies to the Romans, falls to the ground when it is remembered that it was not the Romans who took part in the gladiatorial combats, but their northern slaves—Gauls or Teutons—who had secured their strength and manliness from their free life in the forests. The only part taken by the despicable Romans was to sit by and applaud brutality and demand more blood. But this is not essential. Our correspondent makes the same plea for slugball as was made in the early days in England for prize-fighting—namely: that it cultivated a manly spirit. Prize-fighting has been stopped in England, but are Englishmen any less manly? Have they not acquitted themselves with credit? In our civil war both Northern and Southern soldiers fought in the manliest and most gallant manner, but neither of them had been practicing slugball or any other brutal game. Our correspondent’s plea is substantially a defense of brutality as an element of manhood. Evidently his idea of manliness is that which was practiced by, the Iroquois and Comanches and consisted of catching and torturing their enemies. Brutality never yet was an element of manhood and it never will be.]

Editorial Ragnar Redbeard responds to.


The Chicago Tribune, Dec 4, 1896.

Two men met in a prize ring in San Francisco on Wednesday to determine which could knock the other “out” or senseless for a specified length of time. Special correspondents and Associated Press correspondents were on the scene and tele graphed thousands of words from the other side of the continent giving the details of the encounter. All this has been published in the newspapers, not in any sense to create a demand for that kind of literature, but to meet a positive and widespread demand that now exists. Many thousands of newspaper readers considered that prize fight the most interesting news of the morning. They wanted every word of description they got and more. They wanted all the picturesque details and an accurate report of every incident in every round, with a minute portrayal of just how the telling blows were given and received. They wanted word pictures and pen pictures in such abundance that they, could practically imagine they were present in person- and were eye-witnesses to the enlivening spectacle.

All this serves to explain the popularity of the game of slugball which has replaced the wholesome sport that was known years ago as football. College Presidents and professors, who under ordinary circumstances are supposed to be mild-mannered men, and even some parents seem to want something in the line of game that will approach the gladiatorial contests of the ancient Romans—something in which there will be ever present the possibility of death and the probability of some degree of injury. When they hear that eleven lusty, hearty, active young men are going out to meet eleven other lusty, hearty, active young men, each eleven attended by a complete outfit of substitutes and retinue of surgeons with bandages and other appliances to fix up broken bones, their hearts beat high with joyous anticipation and they sally forth for points of vantage from which to witness the spectacle. If these eleven happen to represent great universities of learning where humanities of life are taught then the crowd of spectators I greater and there is a more feverish eagerness to obtain front seats.

Football as it should be played is too tame for these people. It afforded athletes years ago an opportunity to show their skill, but it has been discarded for the great game of slugball which is full of hazard and danger and a possibility even of death. It is one of the incongruities of life that college Presidents can order students to attend chapel for instruction in the religious and refining duties of the day, and at the same time permit the college eleven to go forth on the slugball field and proceed to exchange “slugs” with a rival eleven under the cloak of sport. One of the chief objects of the participants in the game is to “interfere” with each other, but this is only a supposedly elegant word for knocking each other down, stamping on each other, breaking collar bones, legs, and arms, dislocating shoulders, elbows, and knees, lacerating, head, face, and body, and inflicting other injuries that result often in permanent afflictions.

The interest taken in the prize fight is a type of the popularity of slugball. It is the equivalent of the Spanish bull fight and appeals to the same emotions. But in the bull fight the contest has an animal on one side for whose ferocity there is ample excuse. In slugball human beings are on both sides of the conflict and for them there is no excuse.