However, while the change is disturbing, this story is by no means new. In late 1937, players in the top-ranked University of Pittsburgh Panthers voted against playing in the prestigious Rose Bowl after the season ended on New Year’s Day 1938. The news sparked a national debate about the player’s treatment and compensation that proved remarkably similar to current conversations going on. . About college football. The case also reveals how the problems facing the game will continue, unless college football stakeholders listen more to players, and possibly involve them in key decisions.
The defending National Champion Panthers had just completed a regular undefeated season in 1937 when league officials called a closed-door meeting after rumors of players’ dissatisfaction. The 31-member “travel team” reportedly made Pete three demands: $100-$200 per player, assurances that the entire 60-member team would travel to the Rose Bowl and an immediate two-week vacation to make up for lost Christmas vacation. Officials 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 news of the bomb came out, captain John Michaelusen claimed that for many “personal” reasons, the team, especially the top players who had already played in two sets of the Rose Bulls, preferred a two-week Christmas break to training and travel. In a 1994 interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, All-American Marshall Goldberg stated, “We burned.”
But while they may not have seen themselves as crusaders for systemic change, mistreatment by university officials was the root cause of the players’ decision. Goldberg noted that some of his teammates voted “no” because of their Rose Bowl experience the previous year. In December 1936, the team traveled to California by train, stopping to exercise two to three times a day. Goldberg also recalled a post-game dance in which competing University of Washington players arrived with $100 each and new suits. However, the victorious Panthers received nothing from Pete’s athletic officials and wore old jackets and pants. Goldberg added, “When we attended a reception with them, imagine how [embarrassed] We felt.
Other players were upset by rumors that Chancellor John Jabert Bowman wanted to fire their coach, John Payne “Jock” Sutherland, a former American of Pete who led the program to five National Championships from 1929 to 1937. A new sports policy implemented by officials in earlier that fall. Most importantly, it required players to secure work and study jobs (often janitorial work) to earn their monthly stipend of $48 room and board as well as play and practice.
Although players may not have thought about labor activism when making their decision, outside observers saw the vote in the context of the powerful labor movement of the late 1930s. Sports Editor Pittsburgh Post Gazette Heavy Boyle She described it as a “sit-in strike”. Boyle wrote that the Panthers showed “solidarity” and “collective bargaining” by refusing to play the game, which carried a $10,000 prize to the winning school.
Nationally, journalists have gone further, portraying the Cheetahs as exploited workers. A Tennessee sports reporter has encouraged all college football players to join unions, claiming that the “only difference” between them and industrial employees is that the latter “sets aside money to pay his way through school, while the footballer works to keep him after he gets on at school.”
The narrative of the “sit down” strike spread not only because of the popularity of college football, but also because of a regular shutdown in 1937. Historian David Kennedy notes that in the late 1930s, as the American economy gradually improved from the Great Depression and some consumers resumed normal spending, the shutdown became More efficient work and unskilled workers responded by organizing more frequently. The Department of Labor found that there were 4,740 strikes in 1937—a 118 percent increase from the previous year and the most in American history, with 1.8 million workers striking—a 104 percent increase from 1936. Pittsburgh had 99 strikes—the fifth largest American city.
The press narrative that players were overworked and underpaid resonated with Pittsburgh’s increasingly pro-labor community. Beginning in 1932, residents of southwestern Pennsylvania in traditionally Republican areas began electing pro-labor Democrats in local, state, and national elections. In all, 17 steel company-run cities voted in the pro-Labour candidates for the Republican candidates—part of what scholar Eric Leaf Davin has described as the development of a class-based political identity in the region. In this environment, Pittsburgh residents embraced the “strike” story and sympathized with the players as fellow exploitative workers rather than student athletes.
Soon after the players’ decision became national news, Herbert Nossen of the nearby steel town of Carnegie argued that the players’ demands were requests for reasonable treatment from his employer. Nosen claimed that inviting all the players to the trip was just a wish for the whole team to enjoy a vacation in California after months of tough practice. In a letter to the Pittsburgh Post-GazetteAnd the Samuel Karas, who identified himself as “not a college student,” agreed, arguing that the players simply wanted fair compensation for their work. He compared their wage calls to his own work experience in which “the worker who performs the job best gets paid accordingly”.
Despite the public uproar, nothing has changed. Pete’s management did not satisfy the players’ demands, and on New Year’s Day, the California Golden Bears defeated the University of Alabama Crimson Tide, 13-0, in the Rose Bowl. Sutherland eventually resigned in 1939 after continuing disagreements with several of Pete’s managers over the direction of the football program. The end of his tenure marked the end of the football house’s glory years. After a modest 5-4 record in 1939, the team did not enjoy another winning season for a decade, remaining only moderately successful until its only national championship in 1976.
College football has come a long way since 1937. Players now receive sports scholarships, stipends for living costs, free meals and, most recently, the ability to earn their likes.
However, as legislators and NCAA officials lead discussions about NIL regulations, and university athletic directors consider their own financial projections when making decisions to reorganize conferences—often meaning more travel for players—it remains important to remember 1937. Despite skipping Rose Bowl, the Panthers players finally received very little for their season. Despite attracting tens of thousands of paying customers, officials ignored their demands after the season ended. Even their heroes – both in the media and the general public – did not care much about the logic or ideas of the players.
This helps explain why questions about appropriate compensation for student-mathematicians have persisted for nearly a century. Gamers — without whose work gaming and making billions of dollars would be impossible — really have little voice in the running of college sports. While the NCAA’s amateur model claims to advocate for and prioritize student athletes, it often ignores their opinions and only implements wholesale change on their behalf when forced by the courts. This makes it difficult to create a stable model – one that serves all stakeholders well and allows the game to thrive.