Blue Laws: Football Season Edition

I waxed poetic about Blue Laws in my second post, and this week, as that most concussion-inducing of American pastimes begins another season, I diverge, very briefly,[i] from alcohol-related fare and return to our Blue Period.

As some of you may be aware, the reigning Superb Owl champions are the Philadelphia Eagles. With that in mind, I present to you Pennsylvania Law 74 of 1933:

“The Act of April 25, 1933, P. L. 74, makes it unlawful to conduct or engage in any baseball or football game between the hours of 2 P.M. and 6 P.M. on Sunday.”[ii]

Post-WWI, the popularity of sports increased substantially, and with this new concept called the “weekend”, Sunday was a good day to play. The Great War was the first major industrial conflict, and fighting it took around-the-clock domestic labor—including on Sundays. That, J. Thomas Jable argues in a 1975 academic paper, put a fatal crack in the armor of the Sabbatarians. People got used to doing things on Sundays, and wanted to keep doing them after the war ended. In PA that was a problem, since there had long been a Sabbath law prohibiting such frivolities, going back to the Quaker and Presbyterian governments of the 18th century. Reformers and traditionalists battled in legislatures, courts, and occasionally vacant lots[iii] throughout the 1920s, as social mores changed at a rapid pace. Then the Great Depression hit, ushering in a new, liberal political generation. The Sabatarians lost their legislative influence. In 1933 a bill passed that essentially reaffirmed that sports were not allowed on Sundays, but with a big ol’ caveat: a local referendum to allow the games during four afternoon hours would go on municipal ballots that fall, and if people wanted to pass it, they could. All the big cities passed the referendum with ease—such ease, in fact, that Philadelphia and Pittsburgh were granted NFL teams in July, months before the vote even took place.[iv]

Conservative Huntingdon County (incidentally, 15 minutes south of where I grew up) filed suit, saying the new law violated PA’s constitution, but the state supreme court upheld it. And you know what? The damn thing is still there. Title 4 of the PA Statutes, “Amusements,” Ch. 4.[v] And while municipalities could, and did, vote to allow the sports between 2 P.M. and 6 P.M., it’s totally illegal outside of those afternoon hours.

The penalty? “A fine not to exceed $10.” Think the Iggles can afford it?[vi]


[i] Unlike this sentence


[iii] Jable 6

[iv] Ibid 22. Also on that November, 1933 ballot? A referendum to end the state’s Prohibition laws, in anticipation of the ratification of the 21st Amendment.

[v] One thing you realize, when you start poking around state and local law, is just how many old rules are still on the books, simply forgotten and unenforced.

[vi] If you liked this short article, I highly recommend checking out the Jable article, linked above. A lot of interesting details in this story. Also, shoutout to Paige Barnum for some research assistance with this article.

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