What immediately comes to mind when you think of the term “football”? For many casual sports fans, they might think of soccer or rugby. While these are great modern sports examples, there is another version of football that has been played for over a century. American football is an entirely different sport with its system of regulation and traditions, although, according to history, it is believed to have developed from soccer and rugby. American Football is often described as the ultimate team sport where everyone on the field is working in unison to achieve a common objective; victory. For this reason, many would argue that football is one of the most unselfish sports.
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The origin of the sport can be traced back to 1879, and today, it is the most popular sport in America, its home country. It is also noteworthy that the sport has gone beyond the borders of the USA to gather massive prominence and fanbase in many other countries. While it is usually compared with the NBA in terms of prominence, value, and fan base, American football has surpassed the NBA lately. According to estimates, it is three times more popular than the NBA and has also generated more revenue in recent years.
American football, or just football as it is known in the United States, is a team sport played by two teams of eleven players. The game is played with an oval ball, using both hands and legs. When a team successfully kicks the ball past the opposition goal post or gets it into the opponent’s end zone, they score a point. Today, the National Football League (NFL) annual Super Bowl is the most viewed American football game. This year’s edition of the Super Bowl reportedly attracted 112.3 million viewers worldwide across all of its channels, bringing in $18 million in total revenue. The Super Bowl is the NFL’s last game of the season, during which the league winner is determined. Overall, American football has evolved over the years to become the most popular sport in the United States. It’s gained much traction and is currently ranked as the fourth most-watched spectator sport globally.
Origin of American Football
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The first-ever game of American Football was played in 1870 between Princeton and Rutgers; a match described as “a battle without rules.” The sport initially gained popularity among colleges, and it was played with a round ball and 25 players on each team in its early days. At the time, players were allowed to use their hands and feet to struggle for the ball but were not allowed to hold it in their hands. There were further inter-college matchups after the first game, albeit the rules for each match varied for each college. As a result, the rules of the host institution are applied to any football game between two colleges, which were often rules related to rugby and soccer. At the time, soccer was already a popular game, and American Football was still developing as a new sport. Therefore, just like soccer, American Football was originally played without pads, helmets, or protective gear. This made the game quite dangerous and very physical. But as time went on, American Football developed its own rules, pattern, and style and became distinguished from soccer.
Early History of the Sport
The early days of American football were marked by several modifications to the rules and dynamics of the game, all in a bid to make the game safer and more interesting. Delegates from football-playing colleges, notably Yale, Columbia, Princeton, and Rutgers, assembled in 1873 to debate and settle on the rules that would govern the game. They made several deliberations, one of which was to limit teams to 20 players each. They also agreed on the size of the pitch. This was the first attempt to define specific laws that would govern the game.
However, Harvard College players preferred the eleven-player Canadian rugby version of the game and disagreed with the established rules. The other colleges also eventually agreed with the Harvard resolution and adopted their style and rules of the game. This happened after a match between Harvard and Yale in 1875 played under the rugby-style regulations, which turned out to be remarkable compared to the agreed-upon style and set of rules. With Yale being the lone exception, all football-playing colleges later united to form the intercollegiate football organization in 1873.
However, Yale eventually joined the organization in 1879 and considerably impacted the decision to limit the number of players on each team to 11. Thanks to Yale player Walter Camp, today known as “the father of American football,” the modifications were made feasible. In addition, he introduced “the snap” (reverse passing) as a substitute for “the scrum,” a chaotic situation where all players press closely together while crouched over and seeking to take possession of the ball at the start of a play. In 1862, the first-ever American football team outside college was formed. It was called the Oneida Football Club and comprised ex-students of the Boston elite preparatory school.
Since its inception, American football, also known as gridiron football, has undergone several evolutionary alterations. The game’s regulations and playing style have undergone several adjustments, and it ranks among the most popular sports in the world right now. One of the major instances that called for a rule change was when teams started taking advantage of the snap to keep balls in their possession longer than normal. By keeping the ball for longer than normal and preventing their opponent from scoring, teams like Princeton and Yale maintain several undefeated streaks. A rule modification was therefore required since the fans did not like this development.
A different regulation that limited teams to three downs was later established in 1882. Again, Walter Camp played a crucial role in introducing this rule. This regulation required players to move the ball since failing to do so resulted in the opposition side gaining control. The field area was decreased, a scoring system was implemented, and the line of scrimmage was added, among other consecutive changes to the game’s dynamics.
The advent of the forward pass in 1906 marked another significant change to the American Football game, as players could transfer the ball forward to a teammate due to this development. The style of play in basketball is often mentioned as a major factor that influenced this change. Essentially, the forward pass was largely used to reduce the level of violence in the game. Due to the rising frequency of injuries and fatalities, then-President Theodore Roosevelt intended to abolish the sport if steps weren’t taken to lessen its violence and death risk. The adoption of the forward pass typically boosted the excitement of the sport, but it fell short of totally eradicating violence. As a result, more modifications were made, including cutting the length of each game to 60 minutes, adding neutral zones, and altering the scoring system. The pitch was also later made shorter, in addition to various other changes.
The first safety equipment kits were not utilized in American football until 1920. However, since the introduction of hardened helmets and leather pads in 1920, other new equipment has been introduced. Adopting this safety equipment helped significantly lower the number of fatalities associated with the sport.
American Football as a Professional Sport
American football was mostly played at an amateur level in its early years. No one was paid to play it; therefore, turning it into a full-blown profession was impossible. Perhaps this was one of the factors that contributed to the game’s initial prominence among colleges before teams and clubs began to emerge outside of them. However, Pudge Heffelfinger received $500 to participate in an American football game for the Allegheny Athletic versus the Pittsburgh Athletic Club in 1892, marking the first time a player had ever been paid for a game of the sport. Despite this, the game remained mostly at the amateur level, and subsequent attempts to commercialize it were discouraged.
However, some teams provided their players with added advantages like job placement assistance and valuable items like trophies that could be exchanged for money. Soon after, a professional era in the game was kick-started, where players were paid and even signed from one team to another. One notable player transfer was the signing of Joe Namath, which involved a record $437,000 contract in 1965, a period when the competition for the best players was extremely heightened.
The National Football League (NFL)
Due to the game’s increasing professionalism and the fact that many players were getting paid, the National Football League was established in 1920. Because teams were always in bidding wars and players even took money from a rival team to defect from their squad. The transfer system wasn’t adequately controlled at the time. Thus, the NFL was founded to stop this and provide the competition with an appropriate framework. However, minors were not permitted to play due to the NFL’s exclusivity to professional clubs. Despite this limitation, it is noteworthy that collegiate football persisted still and grew in popularity. It wasn’t until 1925 that the NFL properly solidified its position as the dominant professional football league in America. It was in 1925 that it became recognized as the Nation’s premier authority on American football.
The establishment of the American Football League (AFL) in the 1960s, along with many other events, further contributed to the growth of football as a popular sport in the United States. Even though it helped the sport’s overall growth, the AFL was a threat to the NFL and contended with it for attention. The NFL had to expand to additional states throughout the country to keep the AFL in control. However, despite beginning in obscurity, the AFL rapidly gained popularity and contended with its predecessor as the premier American Football League in the nation. During this time, the AFL brought several brand-new ideas to the game. Giving pocket watches to match referees so they can correctly keep the score of the games and including the game time on the scoreboard are a couple of these developments. Unlike the NFL, they also started the practice of placing players’ names on their jerseys and gave minorities more prominence. The competition between the AFL and the NFL grew more heated, resulting in several player bidding wars between them. In the end, the NFL and AFL agreed in 1966, and a merger took place in 1970. Before 1970, when the merger entered its final phase, champions from the two leagues continued to face off in yearly championship games. The championship was transformed into what is now known as the Super Bowl today after the merger was completely implemented in 1970.
Legends of the Game
Throughout its history, American football has had many legendary players who have made their stamp on the sport. Arguments have always been created while discussing the greatest players in the history of the sport. However, names like Tom Brady, Lawrence Taylor, Jerry Rice, and Barry Sanders will always spring to mind when we discuss the legends this game has seen over the years. Tom Brady is said to be the most competitive player the sport has ever seen. The quarterback’s spectacular career spanned 20 years, during which he amassed the most super bowl victories (7) ever for a player. Among other honors, he also won the Super Bowl MVP award five times and the NFL MVP three times.
Modern American Football
American football has come a long way when we look at where it is now compared to when it first started. Presently, it is one of the most popular and lucrative sports in the world, bringing in millions of dollars annually. Today, the sport is played not just in America but also in other nations, some of which have slight variations in the rules of the sport. The NFL, the main governing body of the game in the US, now consists of 32 professional football clubs and is split into two conferences with 16 teams each. In addition to the NFL, many other professional football leagues have been formed. However, none of these has gained prominence like the NFL since the AFL. The NFL continues to be the major organization in charge of overseeing American football.
With a rich and fascinating history, American football has undergone substantial growth and transformations throughout the years. Thanks to the several improvements these changes have brought to the sport to make it safer and more exciting, it has grown into one of the most popular sports today, with a massive fanbase and TV viewership worldwide.