“Football: The Ivy League Origins of an American Obsession”


Mark F. Bernstein
336 pages, 28 b/w illustrations, $29.95 cloth

Every autumn American football fans pack stadiums to root for their favorite teams. Most are unaware that this most popular American sport was created by the teams that now make up the Ivy League.

From the day Princeton played the first intercollegiate game in 1869, these major schools of the Northeast—Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Pennsylvania, Princeton, and Yale—shaped football as we now know it. The Ivies devised the basic rules, invented many of the strategies, developed much of the equipment, and even named the positions. Both the Heisman and Outland trophies are named for Ivy League players.

In this rich history, Mark F. Bernstein, a contributor to The Pennsylvania Gazette, shows that much of the culture that surrounds American football, both good and bad, has its roots in the Ivy League. The college fight song is an Ivy League creation—Yale’s was written by Cole Porter—as are the marching bands that play them.

But football was almost abolished early on because of violence in Ivy games, and it took President Theodore Roosevelt to mediate disagreements about rough play in order for football to remain a college sport. Gambling and ticket scalping were as commonplace then as now, as well as payoffs and recruiting abuses. But the Ivy teams confronted those abuses, and in so doing helped develop our ideals about the role of athletics in college life.

Although Ivy League football was overtaken by big-time sports, the Ivy legacy remains with every snap of the ball.

— University of Pennsylvania Press

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Originally published on September 13, 2001