The Chronicle Review

One Man Had a Plan to Keep Money Out of College Sports. Here’s What Happened.

Frank Porter Graham
August 12, 2014

As some observers tell it, amateurism in college sports died last week.

No matter that the decision in O’Bannon v. NCAA, handing college athletes a decisive win in the fight to be compensated for their play, will be appealed. No matter that critics question whether, in an era of exploding commercialism, the NCAA’s defense of the ideal of the "student-athlete" has more to do with protecting itself and college coffers than players, and, therefore, that amateurism has long been dead. With a federal court finding the organization guilty of antitrust violations came the first chink in the armor of the status quo.

And the status quo is facing further assaults. Among them, a group of football players at Northwestern University taking steps to form a union, and lawsuits seeking to push the envelope even further in favor of player compensation. We may be entering the post-O'Bannon era of intercollegiate athletics.

It's been a long road, and not just for Ed O’Bannon, the former basketball star at the University of California at Los Angeles who filed suit five years ago demanding that college players share in proceeds from broadcasting and video games that use their images. The conflict inherent in college sports between collegiate and commercial values goes much further back.

As early as 1929, a report from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching called on college presidents to rein in boosters and businessmen who were creating what, six years later, the NCAA would term "the greatest evil in college athletics … systematic recruiting and subsidizing of athletes." Particularly in football, alumni who paid players, and the athletes who took the money and gifts, were already laying the foundation of the commercial endeavor, later presided over by the NCAA, now challenged in court.

Enter Frank Porter Graham. In 1935, amid national unease about abuses in the recruitment of college football players, the University of North Carolina president mounted the boldest response.

In a report to the National Association of State Universities, he laid out a series of strict rules he hoped would stop the flow of money into intercollegiate athletics. A few months later, he convinced the Southern Conference, pre-eminent in football competition, to adopt them. Other conferences, he hoped, would follow.

Direct your attention to the billions of dollars in television deals, the ever-growing athletics departments and sparkling football stadiums, the development of the National Collegiate Athletic Association from skeleton-staffed interest group to national behemoth with hundreds of millions of dollars in the bank, and it becomes clear that Graham failed.

In the 1930s, colleges were just beginning to struggle with the idea of offering athletics scholarships. The NCAA did not have the huge apparatus of rules and regulations that exists today. Alumni were recruiting "ringers" from high schools and from other colleges to make their alma maters more competitive. Money, campus jobs, free housing, the incentives varied. Some students were caught and punished by university rules that prohibited such gifts. Others played while administrators looked the other way.

Opinions differed on what to do about the problem. Leave it alone, some colleges said, arguing that alumni subsidization of disadvantaged athletes was a service. Others wanted to outlaw alumni gifts and distribute all athletics scholarships from their own budgets. A few people believed that intercollegiate athletics should be abolished. Many alumni favored any measure that would produce winning teams.

That was when Graham traveled to Richmond, Va., to persuade the Southern Conference to adopt his stringent rules, aimed at de-emphasizing college athletics. He didn’t believe that athletes should be singled out for scholarships; aid should be open to all students on an equal footing. The rules that emerged required athletes to submit detailed summaries of their sources of income, in an effort to root out alumni gifts made on the sly. Students had to complete one year of courses to become eligible to play. Coaches were made responsible for discouraging unfair recruiting practices by students and alumni.

This was the crux of the radical plan aimed at making college athletics forever an amateur enterprise. Its passage sparked a firestorm of news coverage and controversy.

But in early 1936, with the football season approaching, those who believed in reform agreed on one point: If anyone could push the changes through, it was Frank P. Graham.

A study of the literature on Graham is a study in superlatives. After his career at UNC, he was appointed to the U.S. Senate in late 1949, despite having no political experience. A fellow senator described him as "a giant" and "one of the most Christlike men I have ever known." The broadcaster Charles Kuralt called him "a saint." To North Carolinians who knew the man, such statements did not seem like exaggerations.

A World War I veteran who stood a few inches taller than five feet, and a few dozen pounds heavier than 100, Graham was a moral giant to progressives in the state. His unabashed liberalism and his stands against lynching and the exploitation of labor set him apart from many of his contemporaries born in the 1880s.

He was also a disciplined writer of letters. Answering even the most vitriolic critics, he seldom failed to thank them for their opinions and emphasize how much he still had in common with them. Even those who disagreed did not question the purity of his motives.

For Graham, a sound program of amateur athletics was an important part of a college education, and commercialization would harm the entire university.

All of which made him a persuasive reformer. When Graham wrote to the other Southern Conference presidents asking them to join in "a plan to try to save football from self-destruction," his words carried weight. "It is fortunate for various reasons that this movement has such a leader," noted the Richmond Times-Dispatch in December 1935. What’s more, UNC’s football team had been one of the best in the country that season, losing only to Duke University. No one could say, the newspaper wrote, that Graham's crusade "proceeds from his own team's inability to win under existing conditions." (Some critics did accuse him of drawing up the plan in response to the loss to the archrival Blue Devils, a charge he denied.)

Passage of Graham's plan would not come easily. Most observers considered its adoption by the Southern Conference unlikely. Graham furiously wrote letters pleading with his fellow presidents to speak out; in the days before the decisive meeting, he sent them telegrams. And on February 8, 1936, they approved his plan by a vote of 6 to 4.

The scope of the achievement was apparent. The Times-Dispatch noted that the plan "may cause a nationwide upheaval in college athletics." The Associated Press said that although the ideas were not new, passage "marks the first time in which college presidents themselves have taken an active hand in the matter."

For Graham, promoting the plan had been "the hardest and hottest fight" of his life, he wrote.

But victory was only temporary. On February 29, North Carolina newspapers proclaimed that a group of alumni were maneuvering for Graham’s ouster.

It is impossible to know what percentage of alumni disapproved of the Graham plan, but the most passionate of them had mobilized even before it was approved. With passage, opposition only grew. The university's own General Alumni Association distributed a four-question survey that seemed designed to engender doubts about the effects of the plan, and about Graham’s aspirations. One question asked whether the university's athletics council should be abolished and "sole authority over athletics" given to the president—a measure never proposed by Graham, and one that implicitly painted him as a would-be dictator.

Letters flooded newspapers and the president's office, calling him the "best president the university ever had" and praising his character. Graham would survive. Supporters of reform attacked the alumni rebels and the questionnaire. "If you wrote it or had anything to do with it in any way, I am ashamed of you," W.N. Cox, sports editor of The Virginian-Pilot, in Norfolk, wrote to J. Maryon Saunders, head of the alumni association. "Christ, have you lost all command of the sense of values adults and graduates of a major university are supposed to possess."

Whether the Graham plan itself could withstand attack remained to be seen. To succeed, its strict set of rules required strict regulation. Oversight was key. In the past, faculty committees had been assigned to investigate allegations of outside financing, but their findings were often met with flat denials, and they had no real power. Neither did the Southern Conference, which lacked the staff to enforce compliance. Indeed, other presidents in the conference had misgivings. "I doubt very much whether any member of the conference has qualified except in a very technical way," the president of Furman University wrote to Graham.

By the December 1936 meeting of the Southern Conference, the Graham plan had few promoters left. With support from the conference president, representatives of the University of Virginia proposed language significantly weakening the rules. No longer was a student forbidden to receive money as a consideration for athletic ability—only if the payment was "primarily" because of that consideration. That was harder to prove than the original ban, and easier to ignore.

"The Graham plan is dead," read an editorial in The Daily Tar Heel, UNC's campus newspaper. "Born of idealism, nurtured in suspicion, it died in a burst of recrimination."

Much has been written about Graham—but his crusade for amateur athletics is mostly a footnote. After the plan was neutered, World War II intervened, and it would be 10 years before the NCAA again took up modest reform of college athletics, in what became known as the Sanity Code.

Graham is remembered best for a later defeat. After he was appointed to the Senate, he faced off against Willis Smith, a more conservative Democrat, in a 1950 primary. In the midst of the Red scare, the more liberal Graham was accused of having Communist sympathies and of favoring "mingling of the races." Smith prevailed in what observers still consider the state’s nastiest election of the century.

There was at least a modest undercurrent of disdain for Graham’s politics in his previous battle over athletics, but later some of his allies were relieved that the plan’s failure freed him from the pursuit. As The Daily Tar Heel noted in December 1936, "The most regrettable feature of the incident [the defeat of the plan] lies in the fact that Dr. Graham, who is responsible for things far more important than athletics, has squandered much of his time and effort in behalf of an empty shibboleth."

But for Graham, a sound program of amateur athletics was an important part of a college education, and commercialization would harm the entire university. After his plan was repealed, he tried to convince the UNC faculty to adopt its standards. The ideal athletic life at a university was a function of academic life, a proving ground for the virtues of character among students, whose efforts on the playing field would be "translated in later years on higher levels in causes as deep as the community and as wide as the world," he said in a statement to the faculty. To introduce money into amateur athletics would eventually make college sports "a contest in subsidies" rather than a path to educational development.

Down the road, he warned, ticket sales would become paramount "under the triple pressure to carry all the football load, most of the other major and minor sports, and the athletic subsidies." Further, by putting a higher priority on the athletic ability of prospective students, the university would be "in danger of sanctioning the auction block, upon which boys in high school sell themselves to the highest bidder."

Such a scenario, Graham wrote, would lead to "a campus unwholesomely divided into the subsidized and the unsubsidized and create campus problems undreamed of in our philosophy."

The faculty ignored his pleas, instead adopting a resolution that merely "urged" alumni to submit "any assistance" to "responsible faculty committees."

Graham’s words were prescient. His own university is in the middle of a prolonged athletics scandal. Charges of fake classes for athletes dating back at least to the 1990s; three major investigations by the university to find out why no satisfying explanation has been offered (the third is expected to wrap up this fall); the departures of a respected chancellor, a longtime athletic director, and a high-powered football coach. A sign of the times: The university has promised to make sure that scheduled classes are actually meeting.

Television has created the "campus problems undreamed of" that Graham feared. The millions of dollars that flow among conferences, the NCAA, and television networks make the continued embrace of amateurism problematic, to say the least.

Could the Graham plan, if it had persisted conferencewide, have stemmed the tide of commercialism? Perhaps not. The will of college presidents was lacking, and the power of television to bewitch an alumni base would soon become evident.

Graham, who died in 1972, lived to see only the beginnings of today’s system. In 1946 he wrote to an ally, "We have abided by the majority vote which defeated us, but we still hope the day will come when the principles for which we struggled will prevail."

William C. Friday, a protégé of Graham's, took up the helm of UNC in 1957. A fierce critic of what college sports had become in the age of television, Friday came to embody the spirit of the Graham plan. In 2010, two years before he died, he spoke about why the issue still mattered.

"My fundamental argument in all this business about intercollegiate sports has been the integrity of the university itself. Are we what we say we are? We're conducting programs where there are two admissions standards, we have two salary schedules, we treat athletes quite differently than we do regular students."

I spoke with Friday in 2011, and we talked about the future. Were universities capable of initiating large-scale reform on the order of the Graham plan? He started with four words:

"The day will come."

Andy Thomason is a web news writer for The Chronicle.