I just dropped my son off at football practice. As a lifelong fan of the game, I’m fortunate to live close enough to Brookfield East High School to hear the game from home. Whistles, coaches yelling “Come on, come on, faster, faster, you’ve got 30 seconds!” and athletes roaring encouragement at their teammates often greet me when I leave the house.

I love summer, and it’s always a bit sad to see it come to a close in Wisconsin. But the sound from my porch of the young men practicing—learning to become a team and a family—reminds me that fall is also a great season, in part because of football.

Over one hundred years ago, the game of football was considerably more dangerous than it is today. Progressives of the era attacked the game with a similar fervor as they did pursuing prohibition. Were it not for the efforts of one famously energetic leader, the game likely would have been snuffed out early on, and gone with it would have been an important part of our nation’s character.

The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football by John Miller is a brilliant and fun book that tells the little known story of how Roosevelt saved the game of football. In doing so, it also tells the bigger story about how football and other sports build character, grit, and other positive attributes in America’s youth that they carry with them into adulthood, traits that become part of the fabric of our nation—making our nation better because of it.

John Miller summarized the heart of the book in a speech at Hillsdale College:

Roosevelt was surely correct in believing that sports influence the character of a nation. Americans are much more likely than Europeans to play sports. We’re also more likely to attribute economic success to hard work, as opposed to luck. It may be that sports are a manifestation—or possible even a source—of American exceptionalism.

Ironically, Roosevelt saved the game of football from those who sought to eliminate it by creating an organic organization to change the rules and better regulate the game, which was at the time a bare-knuckles scrum that routinely cost lives. He did this not through government decree but through the organizations that facilitated football themselves, which at the time were mainly Ivy League colleges.

Roosevelt said, “Because I believe in the game, I want to do all I can to save it.” As a result, he assisted in organizing the colleges to enact safer rules for the game and its players. The colleges ultimately agreed to regulate the game (themselves) and created an organization that would evolve into today’s NCAA.

There is much more to the story of how Roosevelt saved football and why he loved the game so much, so read the book, but I think there are two lessons from this history that span the century and are still applicable today. The first relates to COVID, and the second relates to our current challenges on the topic of race.

In the era of COVID, Americans decide every day what activities are prudent while also weighing the associated risk. Although this may be obvious, we partake in many activities that are inherently risky such as driving. Government regulations guide many of these activities, but America’s philosophy has always leaned toward allowing the individual—and in the case of football, a parent and the player—to decide if a given sport presents an unacceptable level of risk based on a variety of variables.

This case was eloquently made by a former football coach and state representative in Pennsylvania who held a press conference after the state’s governor banned football in the COVID era:

Being part of a football team also, by definition, brings people of all backgrounds together in pursuit of a common cause. I played college basketball for two years at a community college in Chicago’s southwest suburbs. We were a diverse team, and we were good because we were tight.

We cared about one other as people and helped each other to victory over the other team, regardless of anyone’s skin color. We were a family, and we were good. Whether in basketball or football, teamwork has the power to melt away differences. It was the first of many times in my adult life that I developed solid, life-changing relationships with Black teammates, colleagues, and fellow soldiers.

America’s greatest team is our military, and nearly all the soldiers I have come across have played sports. I wish America could see that team operate. We are very diverse, we are very effective, and we would literally die for each other. That type of loyalty and comradery was in part developed on America’s playing fields and gymnasiums.

As a young man, I had coaches like Klein Oak’s football coach, who recently went viral with a rousing speech he gave his diverse group of players about coming together as a family and respecting each other based on character. His message was an anchor in a turbulent time: 

“Love you, not because of the color of your skin, but because I know the type of person you are…”

“What is the program about?” he asked them.

“To raise great young men!” they shouted.

Over a century ago, Teddy Roosevelt saved football because he believed the grit, determination, and unity that teamwork instills was good for the country. It’s a message as relevant today as ever before.

Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield) represents the 5th Senate District. RightBooks with Dale Kooyenga is a monthly feature at RightWisconsin.