Carlisle Presaged Professionalism Issue

A major thrust of the 1914 Joint Congressional Inquiry into Carlisle Indian School concerned the funding of the athletic program. The training table provided special food for athletes and was eliminated as a result of the investigation. Providing athletes special diets was not all that unusual at colleges at that time but was frowned upon by those who wanted college athletics to be purely amateur, or at least give that outward appearance.

A little over a decade later, in December 1926, Penn State hired a new president, Ralph Hertzl, with the aim of upgrading the institution’s academic standing. Shortly after his inauguration, the alumni committee recommended that financial aid to athletes be eliminated, a Board of Athletic Control be formed, and the Director of Physical Education (Athletic Director in modern parlance) be disallowed from coaching any teams. These recommendations were also aimed at loosening Hugo Bezdek’s tyrannical grip over the Athletic Department and were eventually successful.

Fast forward to the October 1935 Homecoming. Bezdek was still athletic director but hadn’t coached for years. Penn State hadn’t beaten Pitt since 1919 and wouldn’t that year either. The Penn State Collegian editor, Harry B. Henderson, was not amused with the condition of Penn State athletics and wrote an editorial titled “Wake up Alumni” in which he wrote that he was “attempting to place clearly in the minds of the alumni of Penn State the true conditions of athletics here and the hypocrisy and rotten unfairness of Hugo Bezdek’s plan for the non-subsidization of athletics. What started out to be a system of decency and progress in all athletics has been converted into an intolerable and unjust exploitation of athletes, coaches, and alumni…Candidly and frankly the football players here are being exploited by an Athletic Association that pays them nothing for four hard hours a day and yet takes in gates which approach former magnificence.”

Henderson wrote that Penn State was “scheduling for box office appeal” by competing against “professionals” to line the coffers of the Athletic Association at the expense of players who received just one meal a day and were “forced to hunt for jobs, room and board.” Four days later The Collegian claimed victory in its headline, “Athletic Board of Control Grants 2 Meals Daily to Members of Varsity Grid Squad.” It claimed that, “No longer will players be forced to leave school because they are not eating well enough.”

Issues of professionalism that were raised at Carlisle Indian School a century ago continued for decades and are still debated today. More on Penn State football history can be found on Black Shoe Diaries.

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