John Mosby & The Sport of Football

It is Super Bowl Sunday, and a few days ago, I came across an entertaining perspective on sports and football from none other than John Mosby, the former Confederate partisan leader.

In his older age, Mosby became grumpy about “modern” innovations. He didn’t like automobiles. (He called them “buzz wagons.”) He didn’t like postcards. (Write a long letter, instead.) He didn’t like the new styles of dancing. (“Turkey trot” indeed! How about a good old-fashion square dance?) But one of his greatest dislikes aimed at the sport of football.

John Mosby (left) and one of his partisan rangers in older age.

Mosby had some valid concerns about the sport. In 1909, a student from the University of Virginia died while playing a rival Georgetown school. That tragedy capstoned Mosby’s crusade against football. He decried the game as a “barbarous amusement” and railed at the university for allowing the cultivation of “brutal instincts” among their students. To the old guerilla leader, nothing good came from the game, and he wanted it first removed from college sports and then outlawed in the state of Virginia!

He fired off angry letters to men connected to the University of Virginia, including this one:

“The main object of education should be to gain the empire of mind over matter….The faculty of the university seem to have discarded the Baconian philosophy and to be trying to revert to a primitive state – putting muscle and prize fighters on top. But, say the defenders of such sport, it develops the manhood of youth. I deny it unless by manhood they mean mere physical strength. My sense of manhood is a sense of honor and courage; such qualities may exist in a weak body…. I can see no progress – rather retrogression – in a boy’s going to a university to develop his muscle.”

As you may have already guess, Mosby did not get his way and his concerns weren’t given much credence. UVA still has a football team and lots of enthusiasm for sports.

I don’t know what John Mosby would say about pro-football or the Super Bowl. If he did time-travel, maybe the game day snacks would improve his attitude…or he would still be the very grumpy dude in the corner.

I don’t have Mosby’s aversion to football, but it was interesting to find a Civil War connection to the game beyond using the yard lines as illustrative weapon ranges… If you’re watching the championship game tonight, enjoy and hopefully it is not “barbarous amusement”!


Kevin H. Siepel, Rebel: The Life and Times of John Singleton Mosby (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1983). Pages 285-286.

8 Responses to John Mosby & The Sport of Football

  1. Writing from Charlottesville at the moment I’ll wager that even old Mosby would have approved of the Hoos basketball victory last night over Duke.

  2. Love this! How appropriate a post for Super Bowl Sunday. Didn’t know his view on football. He was right about the dangerous part—it still is. But fortunately (or unfortunately depending on your opinion of the sport), football has become the most entertaining sport on the planet.

    1. My father, Dr. Richard deButts, met and knew Mosby to be exactly as noted! Gruff and to the point. Mosby would visit HIS grandfather, also Richard E. deButts,, in Upperville, Va and who was also one of Mosby’s Partisans. My father graduated from UVA Medical School
      in the early 1930’s and loved football, TOO FUNNY!!

  3. Mosby had a valid concern. A number of college players were killed during this time period. At the urging of President Theodore Roosevelt, rule changes were implemented to spread out the players, including the forward pass. The rest, as they say, is history.

    1. we have the NCAA largely because of Theodore Roosevelt’s effort to reform the game in 1905 … he loved the character building aspect of football, but decried the violence … in an effort to clean-up the game, the then president called a meeting at the White House on October 9, 1905 … present were football coaches Walter Camp of Yale, Arthur T. Hildebrand of Princeton, and William T. Reid of Harvard, the three heads of their respective alumni committees, and Secretary of State Elihu Root …while TR couldn’t direct any change he used his bully pulpit to great effect and the group issued issued a statement denouncing on-field viciousness and committed to a higher level of play.

  4. Thank you for this, perfect timing and quite interesting. Brought a smile to my face. Fyi, there is a small Mosby Stuart museum in Centreville VA worth popping in to see, but check the hours beforehand.

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