Yet while the change is jarring, this story is far from new. In late 1937, players from the top University of Pittsburgh Panthers voted against playing in the prestigious Rose Bowl postseason game on New Year’s Day 1938. The news sparked a national debate about the treatment and compensation of the players which proved to be remarkably similar to current conversations. around college football. The case also exposes how unless college football stakeholders listen more to players and potentially involve them in key decisions, the problems facing the game will persist.
The defending national champion Panthers had just completed an undefeated 1937 regular season when university administrators called a closed-door meeting after rumors of player discontent. Pitt’s 31-member “roaming team” reportedly put forward three demands: $100-$200 for each player, guarantees that the entire team of 60 would travel to the Rose Bowl, and an immediate two-week vacation to make up for the vacation. lost christmas. Administrators denied the players’ requests, and the team responded with a 16-15 vote not to play.
The players did not see themselves as activists trying to change the sport. Instead, the day after the bombshell broke, team captain John Michelosen claimed that for many “personal” reasons, the team, especially the seniors who had already played in two Rose Bowls, preferred a two-week Christmas break from practice and travel. In a 1994 interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, American running back Marshall Goldberg recalled, “We were exhausted.”
But while they may not have seen themselves as crusaders for systemic change, poor treatment by university officials was at the root of the players’ decision. Goldberg noted that some of his teammates voted “no” because of his Rose Bowl experience the year before. In December 1936, the team traveled to California by train, stopping to practice two or three times a day. Goldberg also recalled a postgame dance where opposing players from the University of Washington arrived with $100 each and new suits. The victorious Panthers, however, received nothing from Pitt’s athletic officials and wore old sweaters and pants. “When we show up for a reception with them,” Goldberg added, “just imagine how [embarrassed] we felt.”
Other players were upset by rumors that Chancellor John Gabbert Bowman wanted to fire their coach, John Bain “Jock” Sutherland, a former Pitt All-American who had guided the program to five national championships between 1929 and 1937. They were still more outraged by a new athletic policy implemented by administrators earlier that fall. In particular, it required players to get work-study jobs (often cleaning jobs) to earn their $48 monthly stipends for room and board in addition to playing and practicing.
Although the players may not have had labor activism in mind when making their decision, outside observers viewed the vote in the context of the robust labor movement of the late 1930s. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette sports editor, Havey Boyle called it a “sit-down strike”. Boyle wrote that the Panthers showed “solidarity” and “collective bargaining” by refusing to play the game, which had a $10,000 prize to the winning school.
Nationally, journalists went even further, portraying the Panthers as exploited workers. A Tennessee sportswriter encouraged all college football players to unionize, stating that “the only difference” between them and industrial employees was that the latter “get the money to pay for their studies, while the football player He works for a living after graduating from college.”
The sit-down strike narrative spread not only because of the popularity of college football, but also because, in 1937, work stoppages occurred regularly. Historian David Kennedy notes that in the late 1930s, as the American economy gradually improved since the Great Depression and some consumers resumed normal spending, work stoppages became more powerful and unskilled workers responded by organizing higher frequency. The Department of Labor found that there were 4,740 work stoppages in 1937, a 118 percent increase from the previous year and the most in U.S. history, with 1.8 million workers striking, an increase of 104 percent. percent from 1936. Pittsburgh had 99 strikes, fifth among American cities.
The press narrative that players were overworked and underpaid resonated with an increasingly pro-labor Pittsburgh community. Starting in 1932, southwestern Pennsylvanians in traditionally Republican districts began electing pro-labor Democrats in local, state, and national elections. In total, 17 company-run steel cities voted for pro-labor candidates over Republican incumbents, part of what academic Eric Leif Davin describes as the development of a class-based political identity in the region. In this environment, Pittsburghers embraced the “strike” narrative and sympathized with the players as exploited fellow workers rather than student-athletes.
Shortly after the players’ decision became national news, Herbert Nussen of the nearby steel town of Carnegie argued that the players’ demands were requests for reasonable treatment from their employer. Nussen said his defense of all players attending the trip was simply a desire for the entire team to enjoy a vacation in California after months of hard practice. In a letter to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Samuel Karas, who identified himself as “not a college kid,” agreed, musing that the players simply wanted fair compensation for their work. He compared his pay requests to his own work experience where “the worker who does the job best gets paid accordingly.”
Despite the public outcry, nothing changed. The Pitt administration never met the players’ demands, and on New Year’s Day, the University of California Golden Bears defeated the University of Alabama Crimson Tide, 13-0, in the Rose Bowl. Sutherland finally resigned in 1939 after constant disputes with various Pitt administrators over the direction of the football program. The end of his tenure marked the end of Pitt’s football glory years. After a modest 5-4 record in 1939, the team would not enjoy another winning season for a decade, maintaining only moderate success until its only other national championship in 1976.
College football has come a long way since 1937. Players now receive athletic scholarships, cost-of-living stipends, free meals and, more recently, the ability to cash in on their image.
However, as lawmakers and NCAA officials lead discussions on NIL regulations, and college athletic administrators consider their own financial perspectives when making conference realignment decisions, which often means much more travel for players , it’s still important to remember 1937. Despite skipping the Rose Bowl, Panthers players ultimately received very little for their season of work. Despite attracting tens of thousands of paying customers, managers ignored his postseason demands. Even their champions, both in the media and in the general public, cared little for the reasoning or thoughts of the players.
And that helps explain why questions about proper compensation for student-athletes have persisted for nearly a century. The players, without whose labor the games and billions of dollars in profits would be impossible, really have little say in the governance of college sports. While the NCAA amateur model claims to champion and prioritize student-athletes, it often ignores their views and only implements blanket changes on their behalf when compelled by the courts. This makes it difficult to create a stable model, one that will serve all stakeholders well and allow the game to thrive.