John F. Kennedy photo

Address in New York City at the National Football Foundation and Hall of Fame Banquet.

December 05, 1961

Mr. LaRoche, ladies and gentlemen:

I want to express my thanks to you for this award. Politics is an astonishing profession-it has permitted me to go from being an obscure lieutenant serving under General MacArthur to Commander in Chief in 14 years, without any technical competence whatsoever; and it's also enabled me to go from being an obscure member of the junior varsity at Harvard to being an honorary member of the Football Hall of Fame.

Actually, there are not so many differences between politics and football. Some Republicans have been unkind enough to suggest that my election, which was somewhat close, was somewhat similar to the Notre Dame-Syracuse game. But I'm like Notre Dame, we just take it as it comes and we're not giving it back.

I'm proud to be here tonight. I think General MacArthur, when he was Superintendent, really spoke about football in the classic way, because on so many occasions, in war and peace, I have seen so many men who participated in this sport--some celebrated and some obscure--who did demonstrate that the seeds had been well sown.

I am delighted to be here tonight and participating with you. This is a great American game. It has given me, personally, some of the most pleasant moments of my life-from last Saturday when I had a chance to see the Army-Navy game to a Harvard-Yale game I saw 40 years before.

And I'm also glad to be here tonight with some men who also gave me some of the most exciting moments of my life. Clint Frank, who I understand is sitting down there, whom I saw score 5 touchdowns against Princeton. Tom Harmon who scored 21 points on my 21st birthday in the first half of a game against California. Cliff Battles who made George Marshall look good at Boston way back in the thirties. And Jay Berwanger who's here tonight, who, when Chicago was tenth in the Big Ten, was on everyone's All-American. And Sam Huff, who campaigned with me through the coal mines of West Virginia--and he's even better at that than he is on Sunday.

So I'm like a good many other Americans who never quite made it--but love it.

I do see a close relationship between sports and our national life and I sometimes wonder whether those of us who love sports have done as much as we should in maintaining sports as a constructive part of this country's existence.

I will not enter into a debate about whether football or baseball is our national sport. The sad fact is that it looks more and more as if our national sport is not playing at all-but watching. We have become more and more not a nation of athletes but a nation of spectators.

Professional athletes--professional athletics--I believe has a great place in our national life, but I must confess that I view the growing emphasis on professionalism and specialization in amateur sports without great enthusiasm. Gibbon wrote two centuries ago that professionalism in amateur sports was one of the early evidences of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.

Football today is far too much a sport for the few who can play it well. The rest of us--and too many of our children--get our exercise from climbing up to seats in stadiums, or from walking across the room to turn on our television sets. And this is true for one sport after another, all across the board.

The result of this shift from participation to, if I may use the word "spectation," is all too visible in the physical condition of our population.

Despite our much-publicized emphasis on school athletics, our own children lag behind European children in physical fitness. And astonishingly enough, when Dr. Kraus and Dr. Weber recently went back, after 10 years, to Europe they found a sharp decline in the physical fitness of European children, because in the last decade mechanization had begun to get at them too.

It's no wonder that we have such a high proportion of rejections for physical reasons in our Selective Service. A short time ago General Hershey told me that since October of 1948, of some six million young men examined for military duty, more than a million were rejected as physically unfit for military service. A good many of these men would not have been rejected if they had had an opportunity, when younger, to take part in an adequate physical development program.

To get two men today, the United States Army must call seven men. Of the five rejected, three are turned down for physical reasons and two for mental disabilities. To get the 196 thousand additional men that we needed for Berlin, the government had to call up, therefore, 750 thousand men--and the rejection rate is increasing each year.

I find this situation disturbing. We are under-exercised as a nation. We look, instead of play. We ride, instead of walk. Our existence deprives us of the minimum of physical activity essential for healthy living. And the remedy, in my judgment, lies in one direction; that is, in developing programs for broad participation in exercise by all of our young men and women--all of our boys and girls.

I do not say this in order to decry excellence in sports or anywhere else. But excellence emerges from mass participation. This is shown by the fact that in some areas of our Olympic Games, we have steadily fallen behind those nations who have stressed broad participation in a great variety of sports.

I believe that as a nation we should give our full support, for example, to our Olympic development program. We will not subsidize our athletes as some nations do, but we should as a country set a goal, not in the way the Soviet Union or the Chinese do, but in the kind of way that Australia and other countries do--perhaps in our own way, to emphasize this most important part of life, the opportunity to exercise, to participate in physical activity, and generally to produce a standard of excellence for our country which will enable our athletes to win the Olympics-but more importantly than that, which will give us a nation of vigorous men and Women.

There are more important goals than winning contests, and that is to improve on a broad level the health and vitality of all of our people.

We have begun this year to make progress toward this goal with the new President's Council on Youth Fitness. The idea behind our youth fitness program is to give as many American boys and girls as possible a chance for a healthy physical development.

Coach Bud Wilkinson, who shook off the Washington--after losing his first five games finally got out of our atmosphere and went on to win his next five, and the Council staff, in cooperation with the Nation's leading educators and medical organizations, have worked out a basic physical fitness program for our elementary and secondary schools. Pilot projects have been set up in a number of cities.

The results so far show the effectiveness of what can be done and the extent of the need. In Muskogee, Okla., for example, a city which prides itself on athletic achievement, which has had seven All-Americans in recent years, 47 percent of the students failed a minimum physical fitness test. Only a fraction of those who qualified could pass the more comprehensive test of physical capability. Yet only 6 weeks of participation in a daily 15-minute program of vigorous exercise brought about a 24 percent improvement among those who failed the first test.

Throughout the country we have found equally discouraging examples of deficiency-and equally encouraging examples of progress. I hope that every school district in this country will adopt our minimum program. I urge every parent to support the program and his own children's participation in it. I urge our colleges and universities to lay down basic standards of physical fitness. I urge the Nation's community recreation centers to provide more opportunity for those who are no longer attending school. And finally, I urge organizations such as this, with all of the prestige and influence which you bring to American life, to help establish more programs for participation by American boys and girls--by Americans young and old. In short, what we must do is literally change the physical habits of millions of Americans--and that is far more difficult than changing their tastes, their fashions, or even their politics. I do not suggest that physical development is the central object of life, or that we should permit cultural and intellectual values to be diminished, but I do suggest that physical health and vitality constitute an essential element of a vigorous American community.

No one knew this better than the men of Greece, to whom our civilization owes so much. The Greeks sought excellence not only in philosophy and drama and sculpture and architecture, but in athletics. The same people who produced the poetry of Homer, the wisdom of Plato and Aristotle--they also produced the Olympic Games. The Greeks understood that mind and body must develop in harmonious proportion to produce a creative intelligence. And so did the most brilliant intelligence of our earliest days, Thomas Jefferson, when he said, "Not less than two hours a day should be devoted to exercise." If a man who wrote the Declaration of Independence, was Secretary of State, and twice President could give it 2 hours, our children can give it 10 or 15 minutes.

There's no reason in the world--and we've seen it tonight--why Americans should not be fine students and fine athletes. When I was young, Barry Wood used to play with Ben Ticknor football for Harvard--and hockey and baseball and tennis. He was a ten-letter man--and also the First Marshal of Phi Beta Kappa. And since then he has combined a life of leadership in the medical profession.

I have in Washington, as you know--and he is a friend of many of you--the Deputy Attorney General, Byron White, who was simultaneously a Rhodes scholar and a halfback for the Detroit Lions, and the year that he led the league in ground gained rushing, was also number one man in his class at the Yale Law School. We can combine and must combine intellectual energy and physical vitality.

Theodore Roosevelt once said, "The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena--whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood ... who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions--and spends himself in a worthy cause--who at best if he wins knows the thrills of high achievement--and if he fails at least fails while daring greatly--so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat."

The athletes in this room--you gentlemen-and your colleagues across the country have known victory and defeat, and have accepted both. I salute you.

Note: The President spoke at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City. His opening words "Mr. LaRoche" referred to Chester J. LaRoche, President of the National Football Foundation.

The award to which the President referred is the Foundation's gold medal presented annually by the Football Hall of Fame to a person dedicated to propagating the concept of amateur football.

John F. Kennedy, Address in New York City at the National Football Foundation and Hall of Fame Banquet. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

Filed Under



New York

Simple Search of Our Archives