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Unexceptional exceptionalism: the origins of American football in a transnational context

  • Tony Collins (a1)

This article explores the origins and early history of American football in relation to the development of rugby and similar codes in the English-speaking world of the last third of the nineteenth century. It suggests that the traditional narrative description of the emergence of the American game – which is ascribed in large part to the individual initiative of Walter Camp – fails to situate the sport in the context of the wider, transnational dynamics of the development of the various handling codes of football. In particular, it contends that the common assumption that the gridiron game's early development was a sporting expression of American exceptionalism is mistaken and that it only acquired its distinctive national character in the early twentieth century.

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Guttmann, Allen, From ritual to record: the nature of modern sports, New York: Columbia University Press, 1978, pp. 9294

5 Riesman, David and Denney, Reuel, ‘Football in America: a study in cultural diffusion’, American Quarterly, 3, 3, 1951, pp. 309325

6 Ibid., pp. 314–15.

7 Oriard, Michael, Reading football, Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1993, p. 27

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11 New York Times, 5 June 1857.

12 New York Times, 30 August 1860.

13 New York World, 17 November 1872.

14 Matthews, William, Getting on in the world, Toronto: S. C. Griggs, 1876, p. 61

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16 Gorn, Elliott, The manly art, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1986, p. 188

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18 Ingrassia, Brian, The rise of the gridiron university: higher education's uneasy alliance with big-time football, Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2012

19 Riesman and Denney, ‘Football’, pp. 309–325

20 Guttmann, Allen, ‘Civilized mayhem: origins and early development of American football’, Sport in Society, 9, 4, 2006, pp. 535537

21 Camp, Walter, ‘The game and laws of American football’, Outing, October 1886, pp. 69–76

22 Walter Camp's book of college sports, New York, 1893, pp. 88–9.

23 Camp, ‘Game and laws’, p. 69

24 Davis, Football, pp. 461–467

25 Player, A Yale, ‘The development of football’, Outing, 15, 2, 1889, p. 145

26 Robert Christison, captain of York Football Club interviewed in the Yorkshire Evening Post, 22 February 1901.

27 Camp, ‘Game and laws’, p. 72

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30 Toronto Daily Globe, 12 November 1875.

31 Davis, Football, pp. 24

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37 Marshall, Frank, ed., Football: the rugby union game, London: Cassell, 1892, p. 120

38 Davis, Football, p. 468

39 See for example the use of ‘scrimmage’ in the Manchester Guardian, 20 September 1906. Camp's claim is in Camp, ‘Game and laws’, p. 73.

40 Camp, Walter, ‘Methods and development in tactics and play’, Outing, 37, 2, November 1899, p. 172

41 Detroit Free Press, 2 November 1879; Michigan Argonaut, 14 November 1885.

42 Montreal Gazette, 2 November 1881.

43 Camp, Walter, American football, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1891, p. 15

44 Anon, ‘Football as played at Rugby in the 'sixties’, Rugby Football, 3 November 1923

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52 Philips, R. J., The story of Scottish rugby, Edinburgh: Foulis, 1925, p. 13

Marshall, Football, p. 172

53 For Thornes, see Yorkshire Evening Post, 21 and 28 November 1903.

54 Camp, Walter, ‘Football in America’, Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly, 57, 1, November 1898, p. 61

55 Yorkshire Post, 9 October 1892.

56 Hodge, Richard Morse, ‘American college football’, Outing, 11, 6, March 1888, p. 487

57 The ‘block game’ is described in Camp, American football, p. 19.

58 Davis, Football, p. 468

59 Collins, Tony, Rugby league in twentieth century Britain, Abingdon: Routledge, 2006, pp. 112113

60 Davis, Football, pp. 51–52

61 Henderson, W. J., ‘College football twenty-five years ago’, Outing, 37, 1, October 1899, p. 16

Camp, Walter, Football facts and figures, New York: Harper & Bros, 1894, p. 163

62 ‘Foot-ball’, Harper's Weekly, 5 November 1881; Arthur Brisbane, ‘The rugby game of foot-ball’, Harper's Young People, 8 December 1885.

63 ‘Change the football rules: the rugby game as played now is a dangerous pastime’, New York Times, 2 December 1893.

64 Guttmann, ‘Civilized mayhem’, p. 535

65 Camp, Walter, American football, New York: Harper & Bros, 1891, p. 8

66 Davis, Football, pp. 24

67 New York Times, 9 April 1882.

68 Camp, Walter, ‘Rugby football in America’, Outing, 1911, pp. 707–713

69 Levine, Peter, A. G. Spalding and the rise of baseball, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986, pp. 112116

70 Oriard, Reading football, p. 37

Guttmann, ‘Civilized mayhem’, p. 535

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76 Oriard, Reading football, p. 30

77 Union, Canadian Rugby Football, Constitution and laws of the game, Toronto: Canadian Rugby Football Union, 1884, p. 16

78 Davis, Football, p. 478

Davis, Parke H., ‘The two problems of amateur athletics’, Outing, 19, 3, December 1891, pp. 197–200

79 Carter, Football manager, p. 18

80 Camp, Walter, ‘Football’, Outing, February 1891, p. 380

81 Collins, Tony, Rugby's great split, London: Frank Cass, 1998, pp. 116117

82 Whitney, Sporting pilgrimage, p. 164

83 Camp, Football facts, p. 47

84 Riesman and Denney, ‘Football’, p. 317

85 Barney, Robert K., ‘America's first turnverein’, Journal of Sport History, 11, 1, 1984, pp. 134137

86 Park, Roberta, ‘From football to rugby – and back, 1906–1919: the University of California–Stanford University response to the football crisis of 1905’, Journal of Sport History, 11, 3, 1984, pp. 540

87 Davis, Football, p. 112

88 Nelson, Anatomy, pp. 116–120

89 Miller, John J., The big scrum: how Teddy Roosevelt saved football, New York: Harper Collins, 2011

90 Collins, Tony, ‘The invention of sporting tradition: national myths, imperial pasts and the origins of Australian Rules football’, in Stephen Wagg, ed., Myths and milestones in the history of sport, London: Palgrave, 2011, pp. 830

91 Soccer's failure to become the dominant football code in the United States, often pointed to as another example of American exceptionalism in sports, was repeated in every other English-speaking country, with the exception of England and Scotland. Soccer predominantly became the game of the non-anglophone world.

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Journal of Global History
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