Lately, there has been numerous writings and a lot of rhetoric about the problems of big time college sports and the exploitation of student athletes. Whether it has been discussions about Johnny Football’s right to sign autographs for a fee, Oklahoma State’s N.C.A.A violations, or Arian Foster’s revelations that he broke NCAA rules because he received money and food, each story adds a new age twist to an old school problem: how do you deal with professionalism in a sport where those with seemingly all the power in this economic racket—university presidents, conference presidents, and the NCAA—foolishly want to claim they are protecting amateurism? While most pundits are calling on the NCAA and university presidents to make a change, and a lawsuit is working its way through the courts, history tells us that players have leverage to fight their exploitation. As exploited workers they can go on strike, which would force schools to cancel games, refund money, and raise awareness to their plight. While this outcome seems far-fetched, this happened in 1936 at Howard University. With the majority of these players today at big time colleges being black athletes, I think it is even more significant the strike happened at a black college.
The roots of the 1936 Howard football strike go back to a 1927 decision by school President Dr. Mordecai Johnson to eliminate the “professionalism” of the Howard Football eleven. As the story goes, the 1924 team lost a contest to their main rivals from Lincoln University at the Thanksgiving Classic, upsetting students and alumni. Embarrassed by the defeat the new coach recruited top players from other black schools and also players whose eligibility had ran out. He also offered them room and board for the season. The 1925 and 1926 teams went undefeated. In 1927, Dr. Johnson, a star quarterback at Morehouse during his playing days who strongly believed in the amateur model, abolished recruiting, the training quarters, and training table at Howard. Yes, under the code of amateurism receiving room and board for playing football was considered professionalism. In reaction to Johnson’s act, players threated to strike and withhold their services. It was even rumored that they purposely lost a game in protest. To solve the problem, the students and alumni stepped in and helped negotiate the reinstatement of the training table and training quarters. However, without the ability to recruit players, Howard football never regained its dominance.
After years of having losing football teams and losing money, in 1936 Dr. Johnson canceled the training table and training quarters without telling the players. This forced players, many of whom were poor and lacked sufficient funds, to seek their own food and lodging. Feeling exploited, the players went on strike forcing the school to cancel the rest of the season, including the coveted money-making Thanksgiving Classic with Lincoln. The player’s strike earned the sympathy of the student body, which also went on strike for a day. Together, the players and students came up with a list of demands, which included campus jobs payable in room and board, better equipment, and better medical supplies. Unfortunately, the university did not give into the demands, and the football team continued its losing ways in 1937.
The failure to change the administration’s stance had nothing to do with the players’ tactics, but everything to do with the times. While plenty of labor strikes took place throughout the nation—workers were battling to protect gains from the New Deal—most people did not consider college athletes workers. They did not connect the plight of the working class to the student-athlete and instead deemed college athletes a privileged class of people who avoided the factory or the field and classroom. Moreover, most of the criticism about college football centered on the issue of professionalism and not the exploitation of the athletes, so the players failed to earn national sympathy and support to force a change. For example, Time Magazine, which called Howard “a happyland for white-collared U.S. Negroes,” called the football team the “root of the difficulty” at the great college. The school had just received $5,000,000 in PWA grants and the students were blemishing the reputation of the university. In the end, although the student-athletes lost their strike they created a template for other athletes willing to fight against their economic exploitation by withholding their labor. While most people are still a bit wary of connecting student-athletes to the plight of the working-class, there has been a seismic shift in the attitude towards college sports. The façade of amateurism has been peeled back, and most pundits agree that these student-athletes are exploited. The time is right to make a stand.