Why Is American Football Called Football When They Carry the Ball?

American footballer

Aspen Photo / Shutterstock.com

To find the answer to why American Football is called football requires us to delve into the history of the sport and look at where it originated and what from.

The Origins of Rugby Football

Back in the 19th century, British public schools played a variety of ball games similar to modern day soccer and rugby. Whilst all of these featured two teams and a ball, there were wide variations in things, such as the use of the hands and how one could tackle an opponent. Because of this, there was no one uniform set of rules that one school could play another by.

Several of the major public schools in Britain met up in 1863 to put this right. The majority of the schools in attendance agreed a set standard of rules and regulations and these formed the basis of what is now known as Association Football, also known as soccer.

However, a minority of the schools present didn’t like the rules that had been agreed, mainly in that there was a lack of tough tackling in the new game. So, led by Rugby School, they came up with their own set of rules allowing tougher tackling, more handling of the ball and the use of an oblong ball that was easier to throw rather than a round one like in soccer. This, of course, became the sport we now know as Rugby, officially known as Rugby Football.

The Spread of the Game Called Rugby Football to America

Just like soccer, rugby grew in popularity, particularly in public schools in the UK and was exported all over the world. However, unlike soccer, which was able to maintain a standard set of rules across the world, rugby was subject to a number of differing interpretations of the game.

Firstly, within the UK there was a split between those that wanted to maintain the amateur status of the game and those that wanted to play professionally, resulting in the split between the Rugby Football Union and the Rugby Football League. The other major interpretations of the game were played in the USA.

In 1869, Rutgers University played Princeton in a game that featured two teams of 25 players and a round ball that could not be picked up or carried but could be hit with the hands and feet with the intention of scoring points by kicking or running the ball into the goal area.

Various games between American colleges continued like this with the game being played by the home team’s own rules until officials from Yale, Princeton, Rutgers and Columbia met and came up with a standard set of rules that amongst other things forbade carrying the ball.

The Foundation of the Modern Game of American Football

However, it was after a game between Harvard and Yale was played in 1875 and watched by Princeton officials that the modern sport of American Football began to evolve. The rules of this game were much more akin to the original game of Rugby Football and it was under these rules that the main US colleges eventually decided to subscribe to and from which the modern sport of American Football evolved from, initially driven by Yale player Walter Camp, known as the ‘father of American Football’.

The Name 'American Football'

You can see that the game of American Football’s name does not refer to the fact that it is a ballgame that is played mainly with the feet. Yes, there is kicking in the game of American football but its name is one that stems from its origins as a form of Rugby Football, albeit one that has evolved into considerably different, American form.