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Brandeis Football: a footnote in history

By Brian Tabakin

Section: Sports

October 26, 2012

While President Theodore Roosevelt is regarded as the man who saved football, in an ironic twist, his niece, former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, was a key figure in eliminating the football program at Brandeis University.

The early incarnations of football were a barbaric display of physical prowess often resulting in lethal injuries. With little protective gear, players sustained injuries ranging from broken ribs that pierced hearts, crushed skulls from the weight of and force of gang tackles, and broken spinal cords.

In 1904, The Chicago Tribune reported that there were 18 football deaths on the gridiron and 159 serious injuries. The Beaumont Express editorial board wrote, “The once athletic sport has degenerated into a contest that for brutality is little better than the gladiatorial combats in the arena in ancient Rome.”

President Roosevelt intervened, and through a series of calculated actions and safety regulations, saved the game and sent it on the path to what we see today. Roosevelt’s actions, however, were focused on the gruesome nature of play on the field, rather than issues of character off of the field.

In the early 1950s, Eleanor Roosevelt was a lecturer and a member of the Brandeis board of trustees. According to the April 1950 issue of The Justice, many Brandeis donors and officials were upset with the football program and were trying to make a concerted effort to ban it.

Stemming from its early roots as a Jewish University, early criticism of the program emerged as a result of games played on Saturdays. University officials believed it was inappropriate for a Brandeis team to play on the Sabbath. Furthermore, there was a growing consensus among professors that the behavior of players was unacceptable in the community.

The criticism of the athletes was not an opinion shared by the entire university. Reijo Mattila, a Finnish student studying at the university as part of the International Scholars program started by Trustee Lawrence Wien, submitted an article to The Justice articulating his viewpoint on the issue.

“The athletes are often looked upon as inferiors in the academic field while in fact some of them make the Dean’s List. In my opinion, the athletes are more human than the intellectuals just because they express themselves. I have the impression that at Brandeis, intellectuality is regarded above human value. An antagonistic attitude between campus groups does not build but tears down school spirit.”

Wien was also a prominent booster of the football program, and at the crucial Trustee meeting concerning the future of the program he tried to convince his fellow trustees to maintain the program; however, Wien was unsuccessful in persuading his fellow trustees. He believed that the issue was framed in a way that painted the program in a bad light. It was proposed that the funds needed to sustain the football program would have to come from student tuition, thereby resulting in a $1,000 or more increase per student.

After hearing this proposal, Eleanor Roosevelt declared, “Take it from me, it’s better to have no publicity at all than bad publicity.” Roosevelt admitted that her views on the football program were influenced by the negative talk surrounding the issue on campus.

According to The Justice archives, immediately after Roosevelt’s statement the Board of Trustees voted unanimously to eliminate the football program and appropriate the previous football funding to establish a tuition freeze and increase student scholarships and faculty raises. Wien, however, was not present at the time of the vote to express his displeasure as he “stormed angrily from the room cursing in French, German and Norwegian before the vote was taken.”

The University Athletic Director, Benjamin Friedman, was on a recruiting trip for the football team in the Midwest at the time the vote was taken. When he heard the news of the trustees’ decision to eliminate the program, Friedman immediately resigned in protest.

Ironically, a university founded on its belief of understanding and diversity eliminated its once proud football program as a result of stigmas hidden behind the guise of the need for additional funding. Despite the sport’s continued popularity, Brandeis has made no decision or indication that they will revisit Roosevelt and the trustees’ decision to scrap the football program.

Since that meeting in 1959, the gridiron has remained closed and doesn’t appear to be opening ever again.

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