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The Ivy League Origins of Thanksgiving Football

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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In these times Thanksgiving Day is no longer a solemn festival to God for mercies given. It is a holiday granted by the state and the nation to see a game of football.

No longer is the day one of thanksgiving to the Giver of all good. The kicker now is king and the people bow down to him.

The gory nosed tackler, hero of a hundred scrimmages and half as many wrecked wedges, is the idol of the hour.

With swollen face and bleeding head, daubed from crown to sole with the mud of Manhattan Field, he stands triumphant amid the shouts of thousands.

What matters that the purpose of the day is perverted, that church is foregone, that family reunion is neglected, that dinner is delayed if not forgot? Has not Princeton played a mighty game with Yale and has not Princeton won?

This is the modern Thanksgiving Day.

-New York Herald, December 1, 1893

Times haven't changed much since that Friday in 1893, the day after Princeton defeated Yale in a Thanksgiving matchup that solidified the holiday's association with the gridiron. The "modern Thanksgiving Day" is as much about football as it is about turkey, family and gratitude. To borrow a quote from the new movie "Concussion": The NFL doesn't just own "a day of the week, one the church used to own" -- it's also usurped a national holiday.

How exactly did that come to be? Like most stories from the early history of sports, this one starts with the availability of leisure time. Abraham Lincoln first declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863; six years later, days after the first intercollegiate football game took place between Princeton and Rutgers, the first organized Thanksgiving football match was held between the Young America Cricket Club and the Germantown Cricket Club in Philadelphia. (Of course, the game back then was still evolving and resembled rugby more than the NFL.) Organizers saw an opportunity to hold a sporting event on a day when most of the public had a day off from work. 

Starting in 1876, Princeton and Yale played an annual Thanksgiving game in New York City. That year saw the formation of the Intercollegiate Football Association, essentially the first college football league, counting Columbia, Harvard and Princeton as members. The association standardized rules, still resembling rugby, and adopted a mutual schedule of games, including a Thanksgiving matchup. (Yale seems to have held out of the IFA until 1879 because of a disagreement over the number of men on the field, but the Bulldogs still played association members.)

The Thanksgiving Day game proved enormously successful, so much so that by the 1890s, church services in New York were let out early to accommodate kickoff.  By then, more than 5,000 football games were taking place across the country on the holiday. In 1893, when the above Herald quote was published, the Thanksgiving game between Princeton and Yale drew 40,000 spectators and earned $13,000 in gate receipts for each school (more than $270,000 in today's dollars). The Thanksgiving game was now reportedly "the primary source of revenue for their athletic programs."

The game was also a great boon to local merchants. News coverage at the time describe New York City storefronts lined with Princeton orange and black or Yale blue, of packed elevated subway cars and crowded hotels. In 1893, Richard Harding Davis attempted to explain in Harper's Weekly the appeal of the Thanksgiving Day game and the way it transformed from mere sporting event to must-see spectacle in just over a decade. "No one who does not live in New York can understand how completely it colors and lays its hold upon that city, how it upsets and overturns its thoroughfares, and disturbs its rapid routine of existence, and very few even of those who do live in New York can explain just why this is so; they can only accept the fact," he wrote.

It seems the colors being flown, the schools they represented, and the aspirational sentiments of those flying them combined to generate the great fervor that grew with Thanksgiving football. Davis wrote:

Shops in which there is nothing the student could possibly wish to buy fill their bow-windows, in spite of that fact, with the colors of the two rivals, and from Ninety-fourth Street in Harlem to lower Broadway, where the battle of business is thickest, and from the east side to the North River, the same colors in every form and texture hang on the outer walls, and the cry is that "they come." But long before they come, every other young woman you meet, and every little boy, and elderly men even, begin to parade Broadway with bows of blue stuck on their persons, or long strips of orange and black ribbon, like those of the floor committee at an east-side ball, which proclaim their allegiance and their hopes. It is not at all probably that the brothers of all these young women have ever enjoyed the benefits of a collegiate education ... or that the little boys ever expect to "follow the ball," but they like to feel that they are in whatever is going on, and though they have the vaguest ideas of what it is about, they are nevertheless proud of their colors, and that they are championing something.

At the time, just 4 percent of the country was college-educated, and industrialization further stratified society along class lines. The emergence of white-collar labor and a true middle class with a shortening work week is widely credited with the growth of popular sports during "the new leisure era" -- particularly baseball, but also collegiate sports. The Thanksgiving Day football game was a way for the socially ambitious middle class to take part in something characterized as being for the elites. Newspapers at the time included dual coverage of "the fashionables" attending the games -- the statesmen, celebrities and politicians -- as well as the "average New Yorker," "The Man Who Paid a Dollar to See the Game." Thanksgiving football's transformation from athletic contest to spectacle was thus as much about the elite, collegiate men on the field as it was about the well-heeled men who showed up to watch them play, both to see and be seen.

Today, Thanksgiving football is about the NFL's push to take over more days of the week, to "eventize" the game and capitalize on its status as necessary spectacle. The modern-day, pro-football holiday known as Thanksgiving started as a gimmick devised by Detroit Lions owner G.A. Richards in 1934 in order to drum up interest in the team he had just purchased and moved out of Portsmouth, Ohio. The tradition continues to this day, owing to the psychic connection left in the American consciousness between the holiday and the game of football, sparked by the aristocratic institutions of the Northeast and the emerging masses that wished to be a part of them.

  1. Some historians mark the Thanksgiving games between the Michigan Wolverines and the Chicago Maroons as the "Beginning of Thanksgiving Day Football," but those didn't take place until the 1890s.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Kavitha A. Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net