Why you should care
Because debates over unionization and paying college athletes are nothing new.
Dressed smartly in suits, the undefeated University of Pittsburgh football team was welcomed home from North Carolina by a jubilant crowd after smothering Duke, 10-0. What revelers like young Alex Kramer didn’t know that Sunday in November 1937 was that the historic season was heading to a premature end. A strike was brewing.
With college football bowl season in full swing, the perennial debate continues about how players who generate enormous sums of money for their universities should be compensated for their labor. Several conferences recently allowed colleges to chip in extra “cost of attendance” money to cover expenses, while the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Northwestern University football players could not unionize. But decades before ESPN and Nike showered college athletics with questionably divided riches, the 1937 Pitt Panthers showed such debates are hardly new.
To our surprise, Jock was jubilant about our decision not to go to the bowl game because it cost Pitt a lot of money.
Taking over as Pitt’s head coach in 1924, Scotland native John Bain “Jock” Sutherland reeled in national championships while teaching dentistry and becoming a civic icon. The Pittsburgh Steelers, who now own lifetime rights to the region’s sporting hearts, were then called the Pirates and drew far less interest than the massively successful college squad. Then again, both teams’ players were paid. In the depths of the Great Depression, Panthers received $40 per month from key alumni, a not unheard of arrangement in college football at the time but likely one of the more generous. Kramer, a Pitt football historian and former administrative assistant, says the money was for room and board, because Pitt did not have on-campus dorms at the time.
At the same time, Chancellor John Bowman sought to boost the university’s academic profile — including construction of a $10 million “Cathedral of Learning,” the world’s largest academic building at the time. In Pay for Play: A History of Big-Time College Athletic Reform, Ronald A. Smith writes, “Bowman was not opposed to winning football games, but he thought that Pitt was doing it in the wrong way, that was in a professional manner rather than amateur manner.” The administration siphoned scheduling power from the coach and stopped paying for coaches to go on recruiting trips, Kramer says.
At the Rose Bowl following the 1936 season, Pitt triumphed over the University of Washington, but the administration shorted the team on spending money, and Sutherland funded their expenses from his own pocket. The snub was the final straw between Sutherland and athletic director Don Harrison, who resigned shortly thereafter, but the enmity with the administration remained even under Harrison’s replacement, James “Whitey” Hagan, who had played for Sutherland. As the 1937 season began, players had to earn their paychecks through extensive janitorial work. “This was the Brutus stabbing [Sutherland] in the back,” Kramer says. “A lot of it was the result of jealousy.” Despite extra window-washing duties, the 1937 team was perhaps Sutherland’s best, with depth at every position. Its only blemish was a scoreless tie against Fordham after the potential winning touchdown was called back on a holding penalty. As the regular season ended, the Associated Press crowned Pitt the country’s top team. Another bid to the pinnacle game in Pasadena was expected.
That Monday morning, the players held a contentious meeting — without Sutherland — to figure out if they would go. A split emerged, one between younger players who wanted the Rose Bowl experience and veterans who remembered getting stiffed and preferred to spend the holidays at home. By a single vote, the players decided to bring demands to the school. According to contemporary reports and Pay for Play, the players asked for as much as $200 each for spending money ($3,300 in today’s dollars), for substitutes to join the trip and for two weeks’ vacation. The administration did not relent. “To our surprise, Jock was jubilant about our decision not to go to the bowl game because it cost Pitt a lot of money,” All-American running back Marshall Goldberg said in Sam Sciullo’s Tales From the Pitt Panthers.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette called it a “sit-down strike,” and sports editor Havey Boyle compared the players to labor leaders William Green and John L. Lewis. “Now, considering that college football is some degrees still removed from such affairs as the 44-hour week, wages, collective bargaining and the closed shop, this meeting yesterday was certainly unique in the college gridiron annals and will go down as a historical one,” he wrote. The stunning move backfired. Already in motion, Pitt’s “de-emphasis” on football proceeded apace. Under “Code Bowman,” the school got rid of athletic scholarships. A marginalized Sutherland walked in March 1939, going on to coach in the pros. Pitt football cratered for a decade before a revival in the 1950s. And labor laws still do not apply to college football.