College football is back, with the year’s first full slate of games over Labor Day weekend. The return of action on the field marks the end of a particularly chaotic offseason headlined by debates over Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) legislation, conference realignment and even a high-profile recruiting squabble between Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher and Alabama’s Nick Saban. Each incident reminds us that college football faces a moment of reckoning, its amateur model crumbling before our eyes as student-athletes sign increasingly lucrative endorsement and brand deals.
Yet while the change is jarring, this story is far from new. In late 1937, the players on the top-ranked University of Pittsburgh Panthers voted against playing in the prestigious postseason Rose Bowl game on New Year’s Day 1938. The news generated a national debate over player treatment and compensation that proved remarkably similar to current conversations swirling around college football. The case also exposes how, unless college football’s stakeholders listen more to players, and potentially involve them in key decisions, the problems confronting 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 about player discontent. Pitt’s 31-member “traveling squad” reportedly presented three demands: $100-$200 for each player, assurances that the entire team of 60 would travel to the Rose Bowl and an immediate two-week vacation to compensate for their lost Christmas holiday. Administrators denied the players’ requests and the team responded with a 16-15 vote not to play.
The players didn’t view themselves as activists trying to change the sport. Instead, the day after the bombshell news broke, team captain John Michelosen claimed that for many “personal” reasons, the team, especially the upperclassmen who had already played in two Rose Bowls, preferred a two-week Christmas break over practice and travel. In a 1994 interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, all-American halfback Marshall Goldberg recalled, “We were burned out.”
But while they might 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 their Rose Bowl experience the previous year. In December 1936, the team had traveled to California by train, stopping to practice two to three times per day. Goldberg also recalled a postgame dance at which the opposing University of Washington players arrived with $100 each and new suits. The victorious Panthers, however, received nothing from Pitt athletic officials and wore older sweaters and pants. “When we showed up for a reception with them,” added Goldberg, “imagine how [embarrassed] we felt.”
Other players were upset by rumors that Chancellor John Gabbert Bowman wanted to dismiss their coach, John Bain “Jock” Sutherland, a former Pitt all-American who had guided the program to five national championships from 1929 to 1937. They were further incensed by a new athletic policy implemented by administrators earlier that fall. Most notably, it required the players to secure work-study jobs (often janitorial work) to earn their $48 monthly stipends for room and board on top of playing and practicing.
Although the players might not have been thinking about labor activism when making their decision, outside observers saw the vote in the context of the robust labor movement of the late 1930s. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette sports editor Havey Boyle labeled it a “sit-down strike.” Boyle wrote that the Panthers demonstrated “solidarity” and “collective bargaining” by refusing to play the game, which carried a $10,000 prize for the winning school.
Nationally, journalists went even further, portraying the Panthers as exploited workers. A Tennessee sports reporter encouraged all college football players to unionize, contending that “the only difference” between them and industrial employees was that the latter “works out the money to pay his way through school, while the football player works for his keep after getting in school.”
The “sit-down” strike narrative spread not only because of college football’s popularity, but also because, in 1937, work stoppages occurred regularly. Historian David Kennedy notes that, in the late 1930s, as the American economy improved gradually from the Great Depression and some consumers resumed normal spending, work stoppages became more potent and unskilled laborers responded by organizing more frequently. 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 American history, with 1.8 million workers going on strike — a 104 percent increase from 1936. Pittsburgh had 99 strikes — the fifth-most among American cities.
The press narrative that the players were overworked and underpaid resonated with an increasingly pro-labor Pittsburgh community. Beginning in 1932, Southwestern Pennsylvania residents in traditionally Republican districts began electing pro-labor Democrats in local, state and national elections. In all, 17 company-run steel towns voted in pro-labor candidates over Republican incumbents — part of what scholar 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 fellow exploited workers rather than student-athletes.
Soon after the players’ decision became national news, Herbert Nussen from the nearby steel town of Carnegie argued that the players’ demands were requests for reasonable treatment from their employer. Nussen claimed that their advocacy for all players to attend the trip was simply a desire for the entire team to enjoy a California vacation after months of hard practices. In a letter to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Samuel Karas, who identified himself as “not a college man,” agreed, musing that the players simply wanted fair compensation for their labor. He compared their appeals for pay to his own work experience in which “the worker who does the job better gets paid accordingly.”
Despite the public clamor, nothing changed. The Pitt administration never satisfied 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 eventually resigned in 1939 after constant disputes with several Pitt administrators over the direction of the football program. The end of his tenure marked the end of Pitt football’s glory years. After a modest 5-4 record in 1939, the team would not enjoy another winning season for a decade, and it remained only moderately successful until its sole 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, most recently, the ability to cash in on their likeness.
However, as legislators and NCAA officials lead the debates over NIL regulations, and university athletic administrators consider their own financial prospects when making conference realignment decisions — often meaning significantly more travel for players — it remains important to remember 1937. Despite skipping the Rose Bowl, the Panthers’ players ultimately received very little for their season of labor. Despite attracting tens of thousands of paying customers, administrators ignored their postseason demands. Even their champions — both in the media and the general public — cared little about the players’ own reasoning or thoughts.
And that helps explain why the questions about proper compensation for student-athletes have lingered for close to a century. The players — without whose labor the games and billions of dollars in profit would be impossible — really have little voice in the governance 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 flourish.