It was on this day in 1873 that the first set of football rules were drafted in America. The rules were written by representatives from three universities: Yale, Rutgers, and Princeton.
Beginning in the early 19th century, different “mob football” games became common on college campuses. They all had different rules, but they had in common two teams, each with a big mob of players, trying to advance a ball toward the other side. Most versions resembled some combination of soccer and rugby. Dartmouth’s was called “Old Division football,” Princeton’s was called “ballown,” and boys in prep school were playing something called “the Boston game.” In the early 1860s, both Harvard and Princeton actually banned these games on their campuses because they were so violent, and many other universities followed suit. But the games’ popularity continued to grow outside of college campuses, and by the end of the decade, the games were back at the universities.
The first official intercollegiate football game was in November of 1869, between Rutgers and Princeton. The universities had decided that they would just play by the rules of whichever team was hosting, so in this case, they played at Rutgers according to the Rutgers rules, and Rutgers won. A week later, they played again at Princeton with Princeton’s rules, and this time Princeton won. For the next few years, that was how games went — the rules according to the home team.
Princeton decided that something needed to be done so that all teams could play by the same basic rules. They invited Rutgers, Columbia, Yale, and Harvard to join them in forming an intercollegiate league and standardizing rules. Harvard refused to join the league because it wanted to continue playing by its own rules, and Columbia failed to show up for the meeting; but on this day in 1873, representatives from the other three universities met at the Fifth Avenue Hotel in New York City.
They came up with 12 rules that everyone could agree on. The rules included: six goals were needed to win a game, or a lead of two goals; there would be one referee and two judges; and no one could throw or carry the ball. Columbia agreed to these rules, and four games were played according to the new rules in the remainder of 1873.
In October of 1887, a Princeton professor (and college football fan) named Alexander Johnston published an article in Century magazine called “The American Game of Foot-Ball.” He praised the sport’s accessibility, pointing out that only wealthy young men could purchase a horse for polo, or the equipment for rowing, but that anyone could join a football team. He illustrated the emphasis on team playing rather than individual playing, and explained how important it was for the moral development of young men. And he compared the strategy and camaraderie to that of the military, but with a far happier outcome. He wrote: “To him who really likes the game, and who understands its possible influence on the development of Americans, the excitement, the cheers, the blowing of horns, and the ebb and flow of the game, count for little. There is, instead of them, a feeling of thankfulness; […] a satisfaction in knowing that this outdoor game is doing for our college-bred men, in a more peaceful way, what the experiences of war did for so many of their predecessors in 1861-65, in its inculcation of the lesson that bad temper is an element quite foreign to open, manly contest.”