Growing Pains: Bike Polo and American Football’s 400 Year History

football old

Huge hat tip to Gene Fruit for pointing out this podcast to me recently. 

It seems, at times, that bike polo is doomed to get lost in a mix of arguing over rules, equipment requirements, and a general “we do what we want” attitude holding back any real formation of a standardized way to play (as evidenced in the bench format/3 man/no set positions arguments we see every single year). But we are not alone in the chaotic birth of a new sport.

Point in fact, we need only look to the glory and absolute majesty that is/was the Superbowl to see another sport which, in it’s beginnings, was wrought with confusion, double standards, and a complete mix-up when it came to it’s future.

Native American FootballAmerican football started before America was America. According to a recent podcast by On Point, Native Americans were playing a form of football that English settlers quickly identified to have similarities to their own more bloody, less sportsmanlike “mob ball.” As Susan Reyburn (Author of Football Nation: 400 Years of America’s Gameexplains, the Native American game was quickly absorbed by settlers. (Their lands and own gainful existence was also taken by the settlers, but that’s a different topic altogether).

What is interesting in this podcast and in the history of early football is it’s eerie similarity to the problems we’re currently facing in bike polo today. Consider the following:

  • The Oneida Football Club  from Boston is probably the first group to create a standardized version of the game, which allows it to take off in New England. The standardization created pockets of players
  • Early football had very few rules, and those rules were not standardized between clubs. So when clubs would meet, they’d need to discuss who’s rules they were playing by
  • In 1882, A Yale player creates standardized elements to the game, which help promote it to high schools
  • Players, in the earliest days, weren’t required to wear padding. Helmets, nose guards, and padding were organically introduced by players, not by any rules. The rules then moved on to include the requirement as a result
  • The governing body of college athletics (NCAA) is formed in the early 1900s, and applies new rules to regulate violence in the game. Players are concerned that they’ll “sissy up” the sport. In essence, that violence is a paramount element of the game
  • Players travel for days by train or car to play in weekend games
  • Players are using elements from other sports (rugby, soccer, etc) to form up the game itself early in the history of the game

I’m sure you see the likenesses between the two sports: the hard liners who are resisting new rules and new requirements, the travelling to games across the country, the borrowing from other sports. In all, it took  from 1609 to sometime around 1920 to create football as we know it today, and if you take that long view of the sport, it’s kind of amazing that we are where we are with bike polo today, which has a recognized start in 1999.

I recommend you listen to this interesting podcast whether you really care for football or not, and compare what you see in bike polo today to what American football saw in it’s early days. Then you can take a deep breath and realize we’ve got some pretty great days ahead of us.


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