As you’re getting ready for today’s Super Bowl spectacle, it’s a good time to recall that #EverythingHasAHistory. Including American football which, as Ben Halls at VICE Sports reminds us, is a much closer cousin to rugby than many Americans likely realize. In fact, the changes that occurred as American football developed in the late nineteenth century leads to one of the earliest, surprising, and fascinating stories of transatlantic influences in French sport.
I’ve written elsewhere about two U.S. consuls in turn-of-the-century France who left indelible impacts on rugby clubs. They helped found and father local sports clubs, and were the rare African American consuls serving in Europe.
From France’s Atlantic Coast to it’s southeastern industrial center, these consuls used sports to their advantage. William H. Hunt was a rugby-loving consul in St. Étienne whose flamboyant personality and affinity towards sports—he fashioned himself a bit in the mold of Teddy Roosevelt—was a conduit into local communities. Hunt helped shape what eventually became the city’s present-day pro rugby club, CASE Rugby, but it was his colleague in La Rochelle whose presence is still felt today at the club’s team, Stade Rochelais.
Dr. George Henry Jackson spent much of his 17 years of service in western France guiding the development of rugby for a variety of reasons. As I wrote last year,
“Rugby was a way for Jackson to interact and become acquainted with his French community. But he had other motives. Writer and Stade Rochelais historian Jean-Michel Blaizeau notes that Jackson became involved with Stade Rochelais because of his son, Donald. Jackson fils learned the game while at school in England, and played upon his relocation to La Rochelle. Bernard Schewin, George’s great grandson, relayed that the Consul’s life was not easy. This was likely due to racial and ethnic stigmas of the era. But through rugby, the Consul hoped, his son would have an easier time socially and professionally while also enabling personal development (the ‘muscular Christianity’ mantra espoused by the likes of Teddy Roosevelt and Pierre de Coubertin). In effect, rugby was a means for Donald to assimilate and become accepted in ways that his father could not quite provide.” (more here)
The story of the rugby-loving U.S. consuls thus shines new light on the power of sports.