You are here

A sports column in the New York Times this past October featured this lead: “The earliest football game between two eventual members of the Ivy League took place when Columbia played Yale in 1872.” The article continued about Dartmouth eschewing football contact tackling in favor of moving dummies.

The problem with the sportswriter’s sentence is the imprecise use of the term “football,” which, in that 1872 reference, is soccer football. That game was played with a round ball, kicking only, with neither handling nor tackling. If one looks up Yale’s “football” history, it dates to these earliest soccer type games against Columbia, Princeton, and Stevens Institute (NJ), segues into the brief rugby history from 1875 to 1882, and continues up to the present with the results of gridiron football.

The Columbia-Yale misnomer in 1872 follows the classic description of the first collegiate “football” game between Rutgers (NJ) and Princeton on November 6, 1869. This match was played under rules from the London Football Association, and that is the key to its soccer origins of kicking (hacking, too, probably) but no running with the ball.

In England, rugby and soccer formed their own organizations, and soccer started the Football Association in 1863 to govern the rules. Inside the word “association,” one finds “soc,” a nickname that eventually became soccer. Yet, only in the USA and Canada does the soccer nomenclature prevail today, while, in the rest of the world, “football” is the only appropriate term.

The first Ivy League tackling game was a rugby football contest between Harvard and Yale in New Haven in 1875, one half played under rugby union rules.

Walter Camp of Yale lead the charge to change the rugby rules, and, after seven-years, the newly developed football game was played with three downs to make five yards to retain possession. In addition, seven men formed a line of scrimmage This necessitated the field being marked in five-yard lines, much like the grid of an iron.

With the 1883 rules changes, higher scoring was awarded for a try or touchdown (2 points). A field goal was 5 points, and a conversion 4 points. In 1882 Yale, under rugby rules, scored 52 for and 1 against in an 8-0 season. A year later under the new “gridiron” rules, Yale tallied 540 points for with only 2 against.

For several years after 1883, sports events used these terms:

  1. Association football = kicking into goal game
  2. Rugby football = following the rules of England’s Rugby Union
  3. Gridiron football – adhering to the new regulations from Camp’s Rules Committee

Over time, soccer replaced association football, rugby all but disappeared among colleges, and gridiron won out as the sole definer of football in America.