Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise
Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise
Illustration for article titled 1931 Op-Ed Eviscerates Hypocrisy ... Utter Cowardice Of College Sports

It's heartening to realize that the general sentiment toward the scam that is collegiate amateurism seems to have come around to the Death To The NCAA worldview. What's gone unappreciated, though, is just how long the fight to expose the fraudulent governance of amateur sports has been going on. The concept of amateurism only arose, after all, as a way for rich guys to keep more athletic poor guys from busting them up on the field of play, and as long as that's been going on there have been people willing to call it out as obvious bullshit.


One example of this comes from Oregon's Eugene Register-Guard. On Oct. 16, 1931, the editorial board of the paper took to their Op-Ed page to lambaste the inequitable, almost certainly racist treatment of the University of Oregon's Joe Lillard—professional football's second black quarterback, by our reckoning.


A little backstory. At the time, Lillard was a sophomore at Oregon making his first few appearances with the varsity squad after his customary opening year on the freshman team. The halfback was already the best player on the team, and might even have been the best football player in the country, judging from how contemporaries described his talent as a professional.

However—and probably not coincidentally—after three games showing off his skills, Lillard found himself embroiled in controversy. The commissioner of the Pacific Coast Conference—a precursor to the Pac-12—opened an investigation into the scourge of professionalism. Apparently, it was common for athletes in those days to spend their off-seasons playing with various semi-pro barnstorming teams in various sports, either for pay or not. It was technically against the rules of amateurism to accept money to play, but the prevalence of the practice and a gentlemen's agreement between the schools meant no one dug too deep into their competitors' garbage, lest someone go rummaging through their own.

Until Lillard, that is. Upon an anonymous challenge into Lillard's eligibility, the running back was suspended just a day before a game against the Washington Huskies. Later that day the suspension was overturned, since PCC rules held that any suspensions of this sort could only be requested seven days before a competition, and there had not yet been any investigation. Nevertheless, the investigation recommenced the following week.

The facts of the matter weren't in dispute. Neither Lillard nor Oregon denied that the player had in fact played baseball for the Gilkerson Colored Giants the summer prior, nor did they deny that Lillard was paid. Lillard, however, claimed that he was never an official member of the team and only played intermittently when needed, either under his own name or in the stead of an injured player, keeping the injured player's name in the lineup to make things easier. Also, while he was paid, Lillard said the money was for his role as the team's bus driver, not as a player.


What follows is the Register-Guard's take on the resulting ruling, when Lillard and Lillard alone was banned from playing in the PCC without any due process or even anyone making the charges he was held to clear to him or the public.


Joe Lillard, Oregon's coloured halfback, is not to be allowed to play football or any other game in the Pacific Intercollegiate Conference any more. HE HAS PLAYED UNDER AN ASSUMED NAME!

Presumably the crime consisted of Lillard's touring with a semi-professional colored baseball team last summer, driving their bus, filling in for some youth who did not feel up to the game. Lillard has never made any secret of these deeds. The University of Oregon has never tried to cover up the situation. It is the same sort of thing that scores of Coast college athletes have done summer after summer—tho not with colored teams.

The action has been taken after a dramatic session at Portland. After the first five hours, the meeting voted to take no action in the situation, presumably because the expulsion of Mr. Lillard might open up a lot of dynamite for all concerned. The president of the association tendered his resignation which, however, his loyal colleagues could not find the heart to accept. The meeting adjourned, because in order to get real business done, it is often necessary for meetings to adjourn. When the meeting reconvened, there were enough votes to put one player under the ban. It was Lillard.

Thus the governing body of a great collegiate association. One day before most of the important games of the season. Without any statement as to who preferred the charges. Without any statement as to the specific nature of the charges. With full knowledge that no matter what he may have done, Lillard's conduct has probably been no more "professional," essentially, than that of most of the star players on every team in the conference.

The meeting lacked the "what-it-takes" to put any life in the anti-professional ruling which has been nullified by common consent under the notorious "gentleman's agreement." It has no program for essential reforms beyond a system of systematic snooping. It has merely demonstrated that when it wants to, the system can "get" a particular team or a particular player.

The methods of the University of Oregon athletic management are no better nor any worse than those of the competitor schools. The Oregon management frankly does "what must be done" to meet the competition. The faculty leaders dream just as fine dreams of athletic purity as are dreamed elsewhere, and they are just as helpless as other faculties against the pressure for winning teams which extends from freshman to board members.

We will be disappointed if Oregon "squeals." We will be disappointed if the team under Dr. Spears does not go ahead with or without Lillard and give valiant account of itself.

Standing on the sidelines, we have the right to make a frank comment (especially since we are on record previously). Intercollegiate annals are pretty black but they have never offered a more flagrant example of hypocrisy and utter cowardice. Between a colored boy who has played baseball "under an assumed name" and those who pretend to uphold virtue under the "assumed name" of sportsmen, the colored boy is our choice.


It's striking how similar the issues of the past were to issues of today, and how the Register-Guard foresaw some of the ones that would eventually arise. The "hypocrisy and utter cowardice" of the amateurism police—and the admittance that the broken rules in this case are in no way particular to the school or player being made an example of—are exactly what we deal with today. The "program for reform" that has devolved into a "system of systematic snooping" is exactly what has emerged in the form of the labyrinthine compliance industry. And, as always, it's the players themselves who suffer the brunt of of the system's force.

Because of the ruling, Lillard dropped out of Oregon and began his illustrious though troubled professional career, which took him to the NFL (where he endured even more blatant racism during his single season before he, along with Ray Kemp, were ousted from the league when the NFL's owners conspired to keep blacks out of the game), various barnstorming teams, and five years as a pitcher in baseball's Negro Leagues.


Due to the outsized, self-bestowed power of a few men who set out to protect the economic and sporting interests of schools by limiting the freedom of the competitors themselves, Lillard was never able to showcase his ability on what was then the game's biggest stage. College football lost one of its greats all because someone saw fit to pay Lillard a couple bucks to hit a couple of dingers on a random Thursday in June, which obviously impugned his moral standing when twisting past linebackers in front of tens of thousands of spectators in exchange for a seat in American History 101. The more things change ...

Photo via Getty

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