The first college football game, played Nov. 6, 1869, saw Rutgers beat Princeton 6–4. It was meant to be the start of a three-game series, but after Princeton won the second game 8–0, the rubber match was canceled when both faculties complained that “overemphasis” on football was causing students to neglect their studies. That concern couldn’t hold back the enthusiasm, and thanks to some key innovations—downs, alternating possessions, a line of scrimmage—football soon evolved from an amalgam of rugby and soccer into the game we know today. The early game was dangerous—18 college players died in 1905—and many wanted it abolished. But President Teddy Roosevelt loved football, so he summoned the heads of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton and urged them to make the sport safer. Out went the flying wedge, in came the forward pass, and the rest is history.
Last week’s National Labor Relations Board decision deeming scholarship players “employees” of Northwestern University has many worrying that college sports itself will soon be history (see Controversy). But the list of things that could “never happen”—bionic limbs, gay marriages, black presidents—gets shorter every day. And whatever your opinion on college athletes’ right to unionize or—gasp—share in the multibillion-dollar pie they help bake for schools, coaches, sponsors, advertisers, and TV execs, it’s hard to argue that the current system doesn’t need tweaking. The Northwestern players’ demands, such as guaranteed four-year scholarships and health insurance for injured players, are reasonable. In fighting for “comprehensive protections,” they’re taking a page from TR’s own playbook: “Don’t flinch, don’t foul, and hit the line hard.”