Today we welcome a guest post from Adam D. Shprintzen, author of The Vegetarian Crusade: The Rise of an American Reform Movement, 1817-1921. Vegetarianism has been practiced in the United States since the country’s founding, yet the early years of the movement have been woefully misunderstood and understudied. In his lively history of early American vegetarianism and social reform, Shprintzen chronicles the expansion and acceptance of vegetarianism in mainstream society. From Bible Christians to Grahamites, the American Vegetarian Society to the Battle Creek Sanitarium, Shprintzen explores the diverse proponents of reform-motivated vegetarianism and explains how each of these groups used diet as a response to changing social and political conditions.
With the start of the NFL season today, Shprintzen shows that current NFL athletes sticking to vegan diets are part of a long history of vegetarianism in athletics.
Recently, it has become somewhat fashionable for professional football players to drop meat consumption from their dietary practices as a means to maximize strength, energy, and performance on the gridiron. This group of players has included prominent and well-known NFLers, including Pro Bowl running back Arian Foster and future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez. The diet has received enough renown amongst professional football players that it has even been embraced by offensive lineman Deuce Lutui, who plays a position that depends upon size and strength.
Perhaps somewhat predictably, these athletes’ dietary choices have come under scrutiny—and even, at times, derision—within mainstream culture. While these modern players have embraced a total vegan diet (abstaining from all animal derived products, including dairy), the debates surrounding their choices have largely centered on their lack of meat consumption specifically. As such, these modern players might be interested to know that they are not the first to explicitly connect their on-field performance with the choice to abstain from eating meat. Further, they might be surprised to learn that previous athletes were largely celebrated for their decision to abstain from flesh foods.
The 1907 University of Chicago football team, known colloquially as “The Vegetarians,” trained on a strict vegetarian diet under the orders of their coach. Amos Alonzo Stagg remains one of college football’s most important historical figures, creating innovations such as the tackling dummy, huddle, lateral pass, and even uniform numbers. Stagg emphasized utilizing sports to encourage moral behavior, even banning his players from drinking, smoking, and using profanity. These interests eventually led Stagg to consider the influence of diet on his squad.
Beginning in 1905, Stagg personally experimented with vegetarianism and believed he was cured of his previous physical ailments. Stagg was so pleased with his own vegetarianism that he theorized that his team could benefit as well, both morally and physically, producing greater teamwork, less violent aggressiveness, and faster, more skilled athletes. In advance of the team’s 1907 season, Stagg added meat to his list of banned substances amongst his squad.
News of the vegetarian football experiment quickly spread throughout the American vegetarian world. The Vegetarian Magazine, the monthly publication of the Vegetarian Society of America, welcomed the development, explaining that a halfback was made “strong and elastic” from “oatmeal porridge and cranberry sauce.” In contrast, meat-eating opponents were characterized as “rude and coarse.” The magazine held the hope that vegetarians would become “vindicated” in their diet based on the team’s success.
The team also received recognition from the mainstream press. The Chicago Tribune reported on the team’s shift in diet, explaining that it provided “quicker and more accurate thinking” amongst Stagg’s players. The diet was endorsed by many of the team’s most prominent players, including team captain Leo De Tray, who already lived a vegetarian lifestyle. The notion that vegetarianism built more genteel players reflected Stagg’s other attempts at promoting football as a builder of moral character. The team’s vegetarianism also enjoyed the support of local boosters. Fans of the Maroons even crafted a rallying cry that was chanted during games: “Sweet potatoes, rutabagas, sauerkraut, squash! Run your legs off, Cap’n De Tray! Sure, our milk fed men, by gosh! Will lick ’em bad today!”
The Maroons were celebrated for their meat abstention, representing an era when athletes who embraced vegetarianism were lionized in both the popular and sporting presses. For the first time in its American history, vegetarianism was viewed as a viable path towards physical, mental, social, and even athletic uplift. However, as much as this development marked a change for vegetarianism’s history in the United Stated, the shift was not permanent. Current players such as Arian Foster and Tony Gonzlez continue to be largely mocked, particularly as participants in a sport that emphasizes and celebrates masculinity and violence. But maybe these two stars and other current vegetarian and vegan players should look towards this example with great hope. After all, the diet apparently worked for the University of Chicago. In 1907, the Maroons won four of their five games and were crowned the Western Conference champions.
Adam D. Shprintzen is editor of the Digital Encyclopedia of George Washington at the Mount Vernon Estate and a historian specializing in nineteenth-century America. Visit his vegetarian history blog and follow him on Twitter @VegHistory.