October 25, 2021

Football’s Original Alternative

By Scott Adamson


As you might’ve surmised by now, alternative football is my kink. If a new league comes along, whether it’s big-time, small-time – or as is usually the case, short time – it has my interest.

But here’s an interesting twist; 100 years ago pro football was, in fact, alternative football. Not only that, it was viewed by many as an abomination to the sport made popular by college athletes.

History shows that 1920 was a pivotal year in the evolution of the game, so let’s dip into the primordial soup …

As the 1900s entered its teen years, professional football had no central governing body and was split into regional loops scattered across the country. Ohio and Minnesota were states that seemed to take it most seriously, with Ohio home to the American Professional Football Conference (made up of the Akron Pros, Canton Bulldogs, Cleveland Tigers and Dayton Triangles). Still, there were teams and leagues from coast to coast, often barnstorming and utilizing informal schedules.

And the fact that they stocked their rosters by luring both former and current college players with money did not sit well with the “establishment.”

In December, 1919, officials of the Western Intercollegiate Conference Athletic Association voted to revoke letters and “disqualify for all employment in connection with conference athletics” any player who made the jump. In January, 1920, other college officials joined in the move to thwart any professional leagues.

Upon returning from the National Intercollegiate Association Convention, L.W. St. John – Ohio State director of athletics – expressed solidarity with the WICAA.

“Professional football is a posthumous child of the game,” he told the Buffalo Courier for a February 1, 1920, story. “There is not a thing that can be said in its defense by any sensible man who loves sport. Professional managers are unscrupulous in their dealings with players. They tamper with college men still in school. Young players in need of money are often unable to withstand the temptations held out to them. Their morals are corrupted.”

Some newspaper columnists of the day sided with traditionalists. A national syndicated column known as “The Insider Says” had this to say …

This autumn sees a bigger boost than ever in professional football. Elevens have been formed all over the country. They are especially thick in the Midwest. The game has progressed so that regular sectional schedules are followed, leading to a championship. These pro teams are made up mostly of former college stars. A wide range of colleges are represented on the line-ups.

“One thing you’ll notice – there are mighty few Yale, Harvard and Princeton grads playing professional football. One can’t help feeling this fact is a credit to those institutions. No great glory attaches to the institution that supplies a large number of professional football athletes. Football is fundamentally a strictly amateur college game.

On the other hand Jack Veiock – the noted sports editor of the International News Service – saw professional football as inevitable. He wrote:

Each succeeding season sees the pro grid game increasing in popularity and many followers now believe that it will only be a matter of time until a professional football league will be in operation.

The professional game has been played for many years by scattered teams. With a few exceptions these elevens, or “clubs,” have made a big success of the game financially. And as football grows in popularity, the chance for the professional game to flourish will grow in proportion.

Ohio is the stronghold of the pro game, Jim Thorpe’s brilliant aggregation, the Canton Bulldogs, who laid claim to the national title in their class after defeating the Massillon Tigers 3 to 0, furnish a vivid example of what the game may develop if it is taken up by competent promoters.

… Suppose Chicago, Boston, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit or Cincinnati should suddenly be stung by the professional football bug and a league formed. Do you think it would lose money?

Those words were written in January, 1920.

Eight months later, wire services picked up this story:

CANTON, OHIO – Jim Thorpe, famous Indian football player and coach of the Canton Bulldogs, a local professional team, has been chosen head of the American Professional Football Association, the only professional football organization in the country, according to an announcement here today.

Representatives of eleven cities unanimously voted Thorpe to the presidency with Stanley Cofall of Cleveland as vice president and Art Ranney of Akron for secretary and treasurer.

A decision was reached to refrain from luring players out of college for the professional game.

The new league featured members of the Ohio-based APFC along with the Buffalo All-Americans, Chicago Cardinals, Chicago Tigers, Columbus Panhandles, Decatur Staleys, Detroit Heralds, Hammond Pros, Muncie Flyers, Rochester Jeffersons and Rock Island Independents. It had actually been formed on August 20, 1920, but this was the first time a “ceasefire” had been announced between the amateurs and the pros. There were still some shady dealings early on, but after a couple of years the hands-off approach was in full effect. Thus, college ADs no longer had to worry about their athletes being “corrupted,” and could continue to look down their noses at men who played for pay.

As for the pros, well, the game might’ve been intended as a spectacle for amateur athletes, but they ended up providing a pretty good brand of alternative football. After the American Professional Football Association opened its inaugural season on September 26, 1920, it played one more year under the APFA banner.

On January 28, 1922, it changed its name to the National Football League.


You can find more from Scott regarding alternative football at AdamsOnMedia.com