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Summer sports series: Round 4, Family tree

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Shane McOwen's picture

With the NBA Finals wrapped up, and the MLB season months away from the playoff push, View Sports is venturing into the unknown, taking a look at popular sports around the globe that maybe aren’t so big in our own backyard.

Over the next few issues, we’ll tackle what it’s like to learn popular sports from scratch, and see what we find.

Today’s topic: Family tree.


Today, modern sports have been operating by their core set of rules for decades, having established a culture of continuity and order long ago to the games we hold dear. Minor changes occur here and there, but the recognizable portions of each sport have long remained unchanged.

This wasn’t always the case. Early games often shared similarities, but could deviate wildly depending on where they were played. Billion-dollar industries were forged from the chaotic mess of the 19th century sports world.

Taking a cue from today’s history lesson of soccer, rugby and football, this week’s Sports Series will deviate off the path of learning a new sport, and instead explore the trio’s family tree.

Modern soccer is the oldest of the three sports, and is considered the most popular around the world. But even back around the 1830s, there were people who preferred other options.

Some of those dissenters hailed from the town of Rugby, located in the midlands of England. The players at the Rugby School favored picking up the ball as the prime way of moving it, separating their version of the game from soccer.

Rugby eventually became one of the more popular forms of soccer (or football, since we’re still dealing with England). Soccer formalized its rules into a single style with the creation of the Football Association in 1863, and rugby did the same eight years later in 1871 by creating the Rugby Football Union. The two sports were officially their own entities.

Rugby eventually split into two forms — rugby league and rugby union — as the result of disagreements regarding professional players. The initial change was at the administration level only, but soon the two sects developed their own spin on the rulebook. Rugby league aimed to create a faster, more spectator-friendly version by reducing the number of players on the field from 15 to 13 to open up space. Rugby league also implemented a limit on the amount of times a team could be tackled on one possession before being forced to give up the ball, creating more changes in possession. Both sports continue to score with tries, similar to a touchdown and goals, where the ball is kicked through the uprights, but differ in the amount of points awarded for each action.

In the United States, colleges played football under the English’s Football Association rulebook, and site a game between Rutgers University and Princeton University on Nov. 6, 1869, to be the first intercollegiate affair.

Harvard University didn’t play by the FA rules, favoring its own set that allowed carrying. Finding it difficult to schedule games against neighboring schools because of the rule differences, Harvard set up a match against McGill University from Montreal in 1874. The McGill players operated under a rugby code.

The rugby version of the game caught on and began gaining popularity across the country. It eventually replaced the soccer version most of the other colleges used.

In the 1880s, Yale’s Walter Camp helped push the sport to its more modern shape by introducing rules to replace the rugby scrum after a tackle with the four-down system and a line of scrimmage.

Football further distanced itself from its English cousins by introducing the forward pass in 1906. The first legal pass ever attempted ended up as an incompletion, resulting in a turnover by the rules of the time.

Football eventually introduced protective pads to the mix, differentiating itself further from both soccer and rugby.

Three different sports, all thanks to a few folks who didn’t mind making it up as they went.


Shane McOwen can be reached at or on Twitter @ShaneMcOwen.

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