History — particularly Utah history — is a favorite pastime. I love reading old newspapers as a way of seeing what everyday life was like in earlier times.
A lot of the news wasn’t pretty. Crime, racism, religious spats and other behaviors were alive and well in a society that, like today, was similarly incapable of getting over itself.
Dire warnings issued by religious and social experts predicted all sorts of calamities if women were given the vote (or even allowed to become doctors), if miscegenation were permitted, and if vagrancy were decriminalized.
Of particular interest to me is Utah’s 1909 attempt to outlaw football. That’s right. Football was considered one of the most evil and dangerous of public indulgences. It ranked right up there with whiskey, cocaine, prostitution and murder.
During the 1909 Legislature, a bill was introduced to criminalize the playing of football in any public place — especially the University of Utah and the agricultural school in Logan.
HB165 was sponsored by state Rep. W.S. Hansen, of Box Elder County, largely because of the death of Thomas J. Evans, 22, who broke his neck playing guard for the Utah Agricultural College during a game against the Colorado School of Mines the previous fall.
According to Hansen’s statistics, the average yearly death toll from this nefarious game was 15, with 388 serious injuries.
It’s unclear if Hansen was referring to local or national statistics, but the fever against football was such that Rep. William Archibald, of Summit County, said “more people were killed and injured every year on the gridiron than were killed and injured by the railroads.”
Archibald was, as you may have guessed, full of it. Deaths from getting “ground to pieces” by trains were a daily occurrence in America (and semiweekly in Utah) during this time.
Another lawmaker declared that the same spirit that existed in the murderous hearts of highwaymen and killers lurked in the hearts of football players when they took the field. Although this may have been a prophecy about a future team known as the Oakland Raiders, he insisted it was the truth.
Hansen also worried about the academic impact of football, saying that he was aware of students in Logan “who did not study once during the entire year on account of the superior attractions of the game.” (The Daily Chronicle, March 15, 1909.)
Then there was the immorality caused by football games. Archibald said “there was more cussing, blaspheming, and swearing during a football game than any other sport of which he had knowledge.” (Salt Lake Telegram, March 9, 1909.)
Hansen’s bill had its detractors, including the University of Utah student body, which sent a letter requesting that he back off the beloved sport.
The letter was given to Hansen by a fellow legislator who formally “moved that wherever the word football occurred in the bill that the word ‘tiddlywinks’ be substituted.” Since that lawmaker couldn’t get a second, the House passed the bill, 25-15.
But cooler heads prevailed in the Senate, where the measure was essentially laughed off the floor.
I don’t know about the rest of you, but historical episodes like this make me wonder if what we earnestly pursue today will be the tiddlywinks of tomorrow.
Robert Kirby is The Salt Lake Tribune’s humor columnist. Follow Kirby on Facebook.