A Short History of Thanksgiving Day Football

I originally published this piece for the holiday in 2017, on Stratfor.com. It now sits behind a paywall, but Stratfor subscribers can find it here.

November 23 marks the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States, a time for airport delays, overindulgence and passive aggression at the family dinner table. For many Americans, Thanksgiving also means football. Fans can expect a full slate of games to accompany every bite and sip throughout the day, perhaps viewed from the couch next to the requisite drunken uncle. As we look forward to this week’s matchups, it seems like an opportune moment to reflect on the history of Thanksgiving football.

Much of the early development of American football traces back to the Ivy League, and the tradition of playing on Thanksgiving Day is no exception. In 1876, just 14 years after Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday, Yale and Princeton squared off in what is considered the first Thanksgiving matchup on the gridiron. The other Ivies and early football powerhouses like the universities of Michigan and Chicago followed suit, embracing the self-evident logic of playing on Thanksgiving: In the era before television or radio, a day off work meant large crowds with time on their hands that could be enticed to stadiums for holiday entertainment. High school football programs soon kicked off their own Thanksgiving traditions, some of which continue today. On the Pennsylvania-New Jersey border, Easton and Phillipsburg high schools will meet for their 111th Thanksgiving contest this year. Arguably the most storied high school football rivalry in the country, between the Boston Latin School and the English High School of Boston, has been a Thanksgiving staple since 1887.

When the National Football League was established in 1920, it was no surprise that it joined the fray. Its teams played as many as six games each Thanksgiving Day for the first decade of its existence. Today, NFL fans can expect three matchups on the holiday: one each featuring traditional mainstays the Detroit Lions and the Dallas Cowboys, and one randomly assigned game. The Cowboys have been a Thanksgiving fixture since 1966, when Tex Schramm, their legendary general manager, established the holiday tradition. But Schramm was some three decades behind the Lions’ first owner, George Richards, who scheduled a Thanksgiving Day game against the champion Chicago Bears in 1934 in an effort to boost attendance and draw attention to his struggling ball club. That contest was the first NFL game to be broadcast on national radio. Richards, a radio station owner himself, coordinated with NBC to run the game on almost 100 stations nationwide. It was a coup for Richards, whose team leapt onto the national stage, but it was just the beginning of the NFL’s campaign to dominate the airwaves. In the second half of the 20th century, shrewd positioning on radio and television would help the league eclipse college football and other professional sports in popularity in the United States.

And Then Came ‘Franksgiving’

The addition of NFL games cemented Thanksgiving football as an American institution in the interwar years. By this period, most collegiate programs had arranged their schedules to culminate on the holiday, usually in a much anticipated matchup against a traditional rival. This routine was upset at the tail end of the Great Depression during a somewhat forgotten period between 1939 and 1941 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to reschedule the holiday. The move caused a mild national fracas known as “Franksgiving.” For the play-by-play, I’ll defer to the Aug. 28, 1939, issue of Time magazine:

“… Mrs. President Roosevelt … went to bat cleverly in her column to defend an act of her husband’s which had stirred the country to its grass roots: shifting Thanksgiving Day from the last Thursday in November (the 30th) to the next-to-last. … Only since 1863 has Thanksgiving had a consistent year-to-year day, but football coaches were furious: 30 percent of them had games scheduled Nov. 30 which would now play to ordinary weekday crowds.”

With the adjustment, FDR was ostensibly attempting to boost national morale and holiday spending by extending the festive season. Historians argue that the economic impact of the action was negligible; the effect on morale was equally debatable. Along with the frustrated football coaches, critics of the president took the opportunity to link the holiday decision to his broader deficiencies. Time quoted Alf Landon, former Kansas governor and failed presidential challenger, describing the situation as “another illustration of the confusion which his impulsiveness has caused so frequently during his administration. If the change has any merit at all, more time should have been taken in working it out … instead of springing it upon an unprepared country with the omnipotence of a Hitler.” The greatest morale boost likely came in Colorado, Texas and Mississippi: While other states split the difference, observing either Roosevelt’s proposed date or the traditional fourth Thursday, those states chose to observe both.

War and Beyond

On the heels of the Franksgiving kerfuffle, the onset of World War II brought the most sustained challenge to Thanksgiving football, especially for the NFL, which abandoned holiday action through 1945. The collegiate level also saw a steep decline, mainly because wartime realities meant that most seasons were truncated, concluding well before Thanksgiving. As the draft shrank the pool of available players at all levels, wartime restrictions on large group air travel further held back the sport. Basketball, meanwhile, enjoyed a significant boost in popularity during the war, and not just because it replaced a diminished football offering. The sport’s smaller squads could get around the travel restrictions that kept football teams grounded. In addition, because men taller than about 2 meters (6.5 feet) didn’t fit military uniform and equipment standards, many elite basketball players remained at home while shorter football stars entered the service.

The end of the war brought the return of full-time football and of the Thanksgiving Day schedule. In the postwar decades, as the NFL’s presence grew across the country, professional football for the most part displaced college offerings from Thanksgiving Thursday, save the occasional marquee matchup. The shift has only been a boon for the well-stuffed fan. Most universities still will feature a major rivalry this weekend, meaning viewers can now enjoy leftovers alongside four days of glorious gridiron entertainment — which I’m pretty sure is what the Pilgrims were really searching for anyway.