Today's Tidbit... Paying College Athletes In The 1920s-1930s
NCAA President Charlie Baker recently sent a letter to the organization's Division I member schools recommending the creation of a new NCAA tier in which schools pay athletes for representing their college or university. This is not the first time someone has made such a suggestion.
The 1920s and 1930s saw player payment schemes proposed by many parties, driven by tremendous changes in college football. Massive stadiums rose across the nation and, once built, needed to be filled. The latest technology, radio, became a commercial offering with money to be made by those on the radio side and schools, as some sold the right to sponsor and broadcast games to the highest bidder. In addition, players like Red Grange left the college playing fields and immediately cashed in, earning previously unheard-of sums for playing football.
Adding these factors atop existing school and state pride exerted more pressure on coaches and administrators to attract talented players, train them properly, and win. The "seamy underbelly" of college sports surfaced once again as alumni and others induced high schoolers to enroll at one school or another, while others provided benefits for remaining in school. The 1929 Carnegie Foundation report documented many of these faults, showing that college athletics was an increasingly commercialized enterprise filled with contradictions.
Like today, the 1920s and 1930s heard numerous calls to eliminate the hypocrisy by acknowledging that many schools financed their athletic departments and facilities on the backs of football players, who, in theory or practice, received nothing of economic value by playing along. (Formal athletic scholarships did not arrive until the mid-1930s.)
Bill Tilden, who dominated international tennis as an amateur and professional, argued that commercializing college football brought the evils of professionalism without benefiting the players.
...(College football) commercializes the collective effort of the player, though not the individual. Of course this money does not go to the the player, but it might just as well, for commercialization presents all the evils of professionalism. This same situation holds in the realm of tennis.
...if we are to have this commercialization of all sports, why not pay the individual player?
After all, he is the one who does the work.
'College Football Players Might As Well Be Paid, In Opinion Of Bill Tilden,' Boston Globe, December 1, 1926.
Athletes weren't the only ones calling for player payments. Some faculty members joined in the fun, as when Maj. W. H. McKellar, Sewanee's faculty chair of athletics, called for paying athletes using gate receipts rather than underhanded tactics. McKellar made his argument at a Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association meeting, but his idea was quickly tabled and ignored.
Likewise, Dr. Henry Stoddard Davis, head of physical education for the state of Missouri, responded to the Carnegie Foundation report by arguing that players should receive $2 per hour for practices ($36 per hour in 2023) and a share of the gate.
College newspapers joined the fray as well. The Minnesota Daily pointed out in 1932 that football brings universities substantial publicity and that coaches who lose too often get fired, so college football was already a professional game.
UCLA's Daily Bruin argued in 1935 that football subsidized the campus athletic program, so universities should "give football players $40 a month [$905 per month in 2023] outright." They wanted athletes' "subsidies" brought into the open rather than whispered about.
How soon depends on how soon the colleges and universities decide to be frank and honest about this matter of football.
Football is no longer in the amateur class, but we still in our official dealings refuse to recognize the fact.
'Pay College Football Players $40 Monthly, Says U.C.L.A. Paper,' Napa Valley Register, October 25, 1934.
John R. Tunis, a leading writer in the 1930s, published an article in The American Mercury in 1936 arguing that Yale's selling its radio broadcast rights to Atlantic Refining was an admission that college football was a commercial racket. Following up on Tunis, another editorialist wrote:
Perhaps in the next decade or so you will see lined up in the grid a group of well-paid, smug professional athletes.
When the time comes, the fans might lose their taste for college football. And then again, they might see a much better brand of ball and go even stronger for it.
Your guess is as good as mine.
'The Sports Round-Up,' Spokane Press, October 27, 1936.
While many suggested that colleges pay football team members directly, American colleges chose the path of awarding athletic scholarships. That began in 1935 when the SEC voted to award scholarships openly, hoping to eliminate under-the-table payments. We all know how that turned out.
The scholarship model worked well in many ways but was unable to reward athletes in a way commensurate with their market value, resulting in under-the-table payments and other forms of cheating. Now with massive increases in television money pouring into the system and individuals being able to monetize their social media presence, the old way of doing things no longer works.
We don't have to like the changes, turmoil, and uncertainty in college athletics today to acknowledge that the old system was inequitable and dysfunctional and had been for over 100 years.
The holidays are approaching, so put these books on your shopping list if you want to be nice rather than naughty.
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