The issues college athletics dealt with decades ago are some of the same problems that still haven't been worked out today.
Debates over scholarships and player stipends, for example? Seen it.
"If colleges themselves were not making money out of football, then they could afford to be strictly idealistic," Saturday Evening Post writer Francis Wallace wrote that he told Pitt board member Dr. John Weber in 1939. "But as long as they were making money out of football, their hands were not entirely clean when they came into court demanding that players be pure amateurs."
The NCAA's Division I Board of Directors recently discussed issuing $2,000 stipends for athletes but struck the deal down in 2012 as it worked out the details.
Current Pitt athletic director Steve Pederson, when asked about stipends last week at a press conference following announcement of his contract renewal, noted that Pitt supported the concept of stipends for athletes.
"We've said, from the beginning as an institution, that we support it conceptually. Now, you have to find a way to distribute the money and then there's more issues that tend to come out of this every time they get to a point," Pederson said.
"Now they're down to where they said the NCAA did make a commitment that they do want to try and do this and they've got a group working on it trying to figure out how they can solve it. It's not there yet and I don't know when it's going to get there. We're going on a couple of years now."
The issue of stipends is not a new one for college football, nor for Pitt. Though the current NCAA proposal would bring regulation and uniformity to the issue, college players were often paid in the past, and a dispute involving players and administrators at Pitt was the focus of Wallace's 1939 magazine articles.
Between 1924-27, the average Pitt football player was paid $55 per month for 10 months, plus tuition and books, according to Wallace's article, "Test Case at Pitt, the facts about college football play for pay." Pay was on an individual basis, he wrote, and some players earned as much as $100 a month -- equal to about $1,336 today, per the Bureau of Labor Statistic's inflation calculator.
According to Wallace, the pay rates fluctuated over the years. In 1928, Pitt went with a flat rate of $500, paid over 10 months ($6,799 today), plus tuition and books.
From 1929-32, the rate increased to $650 a year before coming down to $400 in 1933, likely a result of the Depression. (That, coincidentally, drastically reduced the cost of room and board, he wrote -- which the players paid on their own -- keeping them fairly well-off.)
This practice was not universally accepted.
"All over the Middle West you heard the story that Notre Dame and certain Big Ten colleges had quietly decided it was no longer good business to play Pitt, because of the Panthers' bulge in man power, as long as their system of subsidization continued," Wallace wrote.
Even internally, some on the academic side at Pitt wanted to reign in the football program. Pitt went to the Hagan Plan in 1937 -- named for Jimmy Hagan, a former paid star turned "apostle of reform" after becoming the athletic director -- that cut payments to $300, made the players work for some of the money and promised to build up other sports at Pitt beside football.
The team had success that season but turned down an invitation to the Rose Bowl due to a disagreement over how much each player would be paid for going to the game -- players reportedly asked for $200 each, nearly $3,300 today.
In response to the players' demands, Chancellor John Gabbert Bowman enacted a new set of rules that February, "the revolutionary Code Bowman," which cut scholarships and some games from the schedule and brought athletics "under the complete control of the faculty."
Players later revolted, the team struggled and coach Jock Sutherland would resign, as Wallace outlined in his follow-up article, "The Football Laboratory Explodes."
In his conclusion to the series, Wallace asked, "Is there a road back for an American college dissatisfied with the highway of high-pressure football play for pay?"
A few decades, NCAA rules and billions of dollars later, the answers are still at large.
First Published June 16, 2013 4:00 AM