Organized football in the U.S. was, in part, established when white men could no longer prove their virility by killing Native Americans, according to historians.
Sally Jenkins, author of The Real All Americans – a book about the origins of American football and the Carlisle Indian boarding school football team – said on Radiolab, an investigative podcast, settlers who had fought in the Civil War traveled west to fight the Lakota, Apache, Cheyenne, and other Native American nations.
“Football is as old as the Celtic civilization. I mean, you can trace primal games of, you know, Danish invaders kicking skulls around the shores of England,” she said. “But organized football is really a creation of the 1860s and ’70s in this country. It’s a post Civil War creation. It comes along just really a couple of years after the last great conquering armies settle the west.”
But, historians said, a predicament appeared for settlers when Indian wars and massacres began to wane: how to prove one’s manliness.
“If you’re a young student, say, back east at a fancy school like Harvard, how are you going to prove your own toughness? I mean your father, your older brother, they maybe fought at Gettysburg, Battle of the Little Bighorn,” said historian Dr. Conrad Crane.
Historian David Adams said with the end of consistent confrontations with Native Americans, men were thought to be losing their grit.
“The American frontier experience was over. There was this feeling among a lot intellectuals that American men were losing their masculinity, they were being feminized in a sense,” he said.
In desperation for opportunities to demonstrate one’s manliness, the game of football was invented at both Harvard and Yale universities. The point of the game was twofold: to prove strength and take land, i.e. gain yards.
Jenkins’ book tells of how the Native Americans at the Carlisle Indian boarding school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, learned football from a dormitory master who had formerly taught at one of the Ivy Leagues and how the team went on to gain the approbation of Americans.
According to Jenkins, reporters at the time would refer to the Native American football players as ‘redskins.’
“And if you read the newspaper stories they’re written in this kind of blood curdling – shot through with Indian cliches. Here come the ‘redskins’.”