Pitt in the making: Idea to pay college athletes not new


In April 1935 — when the Steelers were not yet two years old, still known as the Pirates and more likely recruiting from sandlots than dorm rooms — Pitt economics Professor Francis D. Tyson told 1,000 phys ed teachers meeting here that college students should be paid to play sports.

He predicted that future football teams would be “professional performers, college trained and sponsored,” and that colleges’ amateurism was just ‘hypocrisy … a hangover from the British aristocratic tradition.”

Members of the American Physical Education Association, meeting at the William Penn Hotel downtown, “for the most part, seemed startled at the tenor of the speech and applauded but scantily at its close,” said the Post-Gazette.

Tyson made other startling suggestions. He asked: “Is it not inconsistent to praise students for working their way through college by waiting on fraternity table(s), which they often do badly, and blame them for earning a little money by playing football, which they do very well?

“Is it not as fair to give scholarships for football as for classical study in an institution which advertises both activities? For probably the latter is better training in the competitive contest of modern life.”

American universities give degrees in business administration, he said — why not football? he implied.

As Pittsburgh Press columnist Chester L. Smith put it, Tyson’s talk “stirred up no end of rumpus.”

Partly, that was because college athletes were already getting paid, to a large extent, Smith said.

In fact, Charles D. Wettach, chairman of the Pitt Athletic Council, told the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph “that he is now paying one boy’s way through prep school and he expected that boy to play football at Pitt.”

And, anyway, it was common for alumni to help athletes just as directly, he told the P-G.

“In the future we may have to come to that,” Wettach said of paying college athletes a salary. His assessment of the situation, while not exactly reflecting a 2021 view, was progressive for 1935: “We give scholarships for academic work, don't we? Well, what's wrong with giving a scholarship to a boy who happens to be endowed with a good physique and the mental ability to carry on his work? Why penalize him in favor of one who happens to be brighter in studies?”

Pitt News Editor Jack Tibby opined: “Dr. Tyson was right in suggesting that lads who don't chill up the spine at the mention of Santayana or statistics should have the advantages of specialized athletic education if they can benefit by it. Philosophy has a social value; so has physical education.”

Among the naysayers — who included Pitt’s chancellor — was Leah Stark, vice president of the Women's Athletic Association at Pitt. “I don't think athletics should be subsidized,” she said, “when that process shoves general student athletic activities into the background to make room for a crew of overworked gladiators.”

The state superintendent of public instruction, addressing a Pennsylvania phys ed teachers’ group two days later, advised them to “stand by the principle of education in athletics and keep athletics free from the taint of professionalism.”

Faced with general displeasure, Tyson backtracked, saying athletes might receive “a system of ‘controlled’ and ‘limited’ athletic scholarships not subsidies,” he told the Sun-Telegraph, which “might well include, if necessary, board and room, plus a little spending money.”

But in fact, just down the road, little Washington and Jefferson College — then a Pitt rival — had already been paying athletes. A 1929 report by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, “American College Athletics,” dubbed this “an extreme case of subsidizing,” in which “alumni and businessmen made contributions ranging from $10 to nearly $1,000 annually to a fund aggregating from $25,000 to $50,000 a year. From this the college expenses of all football players were paid and additional sums, termed ‘pay checks,’ were dispersed to leading performers.

For better or worse, Tyson’s efforts seemed to end right there. Pitt could have been 85 years ahead of its time, if it weren’t for public sentiment, perhaps best embodied in this letter to the editor in the P-G:

“Well, well, well! Why should a teacher of ‘economics,’ anyway, be a speaker in a physical education convention? Who let him in?”

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at martyl@pitt.edu or 412-758-4859.


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