This week in Duke history: Blue Devil football team reinstated after 25-year ban

Duke had banned football from 1895 to 1920.
Duke had banned football from 1895 to 1920.

For all the talk about the dangers of football, guess what? That’s not new!

Duke actually banned football for 25 years from 1895 to 1920, and this week in 1920—specifically on October 16—the University brought back the team. The team, then part of Trinity College, played on East Campus at the time and returned for a 20-7 win against Guilford.

The Blue Devils, a nickname they did not pick up until 1922, stopped playing at a time when schools across the country ended their football programs, too. President Theodore Roosevelt became a strong proponent of football, helping to keep the sport alive in America.

There was a play in particular called the flying wedge, which involved just massive pileups and head-on collisions and helped lead to 63 deaths in college football between 1905 and 1908.

But the program came back to Duke in 1920, thanks in part according to a 1990 journal article in the Journal of Sports History due to World War I veterans returning and paradoxically being told football was too dangerous for them.

There were also concerns about the morality of the sport in a university with Methodist ties. Newly-installed President John Kilgo and religious figures associated with the Universiity did not appreciate the significant alcohol use, including keg-drinking after giving up halfway through a game against Virginia, distraction from academics and general "moral debauchery" that came with the sport.

And if you thought the Tobacco road rivalry was serious, there is some comparable history. After an 1888 game, one Duke player challenged a North Carolina player to a duel, and they even appointed seconds, which means they were close to going through with it.

But if you watch Hamilton, you know that "most disputes die and no one shoots." After all, football is enough violence.


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