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"AN HONORABLE AND RECOGNIZED PROFESSION"
Bill Tilden and the USLTA's Ban
of Tennis Player-Journalists
A paper submitted to
the History Division
Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication
By John Carvalho, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Journalism
Send inquiries to:
216 Tichenor Hall
Auburn University, AL 36849
E-mail: [log in to unmask]
"An Honorable and Recognized Profession"
Bill Tilden and the USLTA's Ban
of Tennis Player-Journalists
In 1924, the USLTA announced that any amateur tennis player would be
banned from competition if he or she accepted money for writing about
their sport. Bill Tilden, who was a journalist before he became the
world's No. 1 player, announced that he would retire from tennis
rather than give up journalism. The debate reflects two contemporary
tensions: the evolving nature of professional vs. amateur sports and
the high interest in "Jazz Age" sports coverage.
'An Honorable and Recognized Profession'
"An Honorable and Recognized Profession"
Bill Tilden and the USLTA's Ban
of Tennis Player-Journalists
In March 1924, Bill Tilden announced, "I cannot give up my
profession." He was not referring to tennis, although he was
undoubtedly the greatest player of his era. He was referring to his
profession as a journalist and responding to a ruling by the United
States Lawn Tennis Association, that tennis players had to either
stop writing about their sport for pay or lose their amateur status.
To the 1920s sports fan, this represented yet another
sports-oriented drama – business as usual in a decade that featured
such colorful characters as baseball's Babe Ruth and boxing's Jack
Dempsey. From an historical perspective, however, the controversy
reflects a profound debate concerning the nature of amateur and
professional sport – a debate that was being engaged at many levels.
The debate raged on in many sports. But nowhere did it involve as
high-profile an athlete as in tennis, when the USLTA and acknowledged
world No. 1 player Bill Tilden faced off.
CHANGES IN SPORTS AND JOURNALISM
The conflict between Tilden and the USLTA is not surprising, because
it came at a time when the nature of sports and sports journalism
were at a crossroads. For sports, the traditional notion of athletes
as amateurs was being challenged by the rise of professional
sports. In journalism, the popularity of the sports pages was
causing journalists to examine how the Jazz Age sports craze was
affecting journalistic values.
Changes in sports. As the United States transitioned from a
farm-based rural society to a factory-based urban society, the
effects of modernism affected many institutions, including
sports. Sports played a vital role in forging the nation's cultural
identity, while also reflecting these changes in identity. As the
century turned, Americans turned their attention to truly national
pastimes like baseball and college football.
To many, sports provided an excellent means of teaching the values
that would help industrial America: teamwork, hard work, and
adaptability. Early football coaches like Walter Camp promoted
college football as the perfect game to train future
industrialists. Once 18th-Century business leaders recognized the
value of baseball in teaching division of labor and quantifiable
production, they dropped their opposition and sponsored teams.
Events like the Olympics combined patriotism with sports interest to
build national pride and loyalty. The rising interest in
professional sports, however, changed the focus to entertainment,
particularly during the Jazz Age, and disillusioned many who held
more Progressive aims for sports.
Thus, not only did the rise in professional sports reflect the
changing social structure of the 1920s; professional sports also
provided a diversion for the society witnessed these changes. To
cultural historian Benjamin Rader, a Babe Ruth home run or a Jack
Dempsey knockout provided images of power and instant success. In
that sense, they were "compensating" for "the passing of the
traditional dream of success, the erosion of Victorian values, and
feelings of individual powerlessness."
For a nation recovering from the horror of World War I, sports
provided a convenient release. In one sports historian's words, "In
a decade dedicated largely to escapism, adventure, and general
levity, sport gained the publicity which made it one of America's
foremost social institutions." But with this ascendance came
changes that threatened the traditional power structures of
sports. The rise of the athlete threatened the rich and powerful,
who both owned teams and, in the case of sports like golf and tennis,
sought to maintain a traditional amateur ideal.
Changes in sports journalism. At the same time, newspapers were
facing the effects of the sports craze on their pages. The
relationship resembled a business arrangement more than a
source-media relationship. Newspapers provided readers with daily
reports of sporting events, which drew fans to games; attendance
increases were also reflected in higher fan interest and higher
newspaper circulation. For the "Jazz Age" newspaper publisher,
sports provided financial advantages besides the increase in
circulation. Overall, sports coverage cost less to produce than news
coverage, and escapist sports articles distanced newspapers from the
political partisanship of the 19th Century, which had cost it many readers.
The big-time sports promoters of the 1920s also recognized this
relationship. They could bring high-profile sporting events to
cities, but they needed newspapers to promote the events.
Athletes like Babe Ruth also understood the system and used it to
promote themselves to public prominence and financial
success. In turn, newspapers knew they were getting dramatic
coverage featuring well-known athletes like Jack Dempsey and Gene
Tunney in compelling heavyweight championship narratives.
Sports sections were getting larger and their editors were being
granted more autonomy. A report by the American Society of
Newspaper Editors claimed that sports editors sent their pages
directly to the composing room, bypassing the copy desk. In
addition, the report (by an ethics committee) claimed that sports
writers accepted direct payments from sports promoters, as well as
premiums such as free tickets to sporting events.
Clearly, America's sports mania was having an explosive effect on
sports media (much as it has continued to even to this cable
television and Internet age of sports media). At the same time, the
sports themselves were facing major change as the public focused more
and more on individual athletes. It was into this dynamic mix that
the USLTA dropped a bombshell in 1924.
BILL TILDEN AND THE USLTA
For this paper, the conflict between Tilden and the USLTA was
reconstructed by consulting three publications: the New York Times,
the Philadelphia Public Ledger (Tilden's hometown paper and first
employer) and Editor& Publisher, a professional journal for newspaper
managers. The search for articles comprised December 1923 (when the
proposal first was announced) to February 1925 (when a compromise
proposal was accepted).
In December 1923, the Amateur Rule Committee of the USLTA reported
its opinion to the Executive Committee: that any tennis player who
received "substantial sums of money" to write for newspapers or
magazines was not an amateur and should not be allowed to compete in
USLTA-sponsored events. The New York Times published a complete copy
of the report on January 4, 1924. The committee described the
motivation behind this new rule:
The ideals of true sportsmanship are not being upheld when a man
plays the game with any interest in it whatsoever other than the
interest to play the game as a game untrammeled by thoughts of
business, to play the game for the game's sake, and to play it merely
as a recreation and for pleasure.
Today, such sentiments seem curious, but the report expressed concern
about the individual who would sacrifice career for tennis, once his
playing days ended:
. . . when later he loses his skill and strength and with it his
titles and prestige as a tennis player he also loses his remunerative
occupation, and then finds himself no longer a young man and without
any business or profession. A young man without a job may not be a
serious matter, but a man well along in years without a job is a real
tragedy. And even if he is lucky enough to find an opening to enter
a business or profession he must necessarily start his career under a
serious handicap and compete with rivals of his own age who have
attended more closely to business.
To the committee, a player who devoted all of his time to playing,
and who supported himself by writing about it, enjoyed an unfair
advantage over the player whose sole motivation was love of the game
– and the committee obviously favored the latter. The report also
dismissed the argument that tennis players were more qualified to
write about their sport, noting that more newspapers were hiring
competent tennis writers. The committee delayed the effective date
for the rule until January 1, 1925, recognizing that several players
had signed contracts to write articles for newspapers during
1924. The resolution to accept the interpretation would be
presented to the USLTA at its annual meeting on February 2 at New
York City's Waldorf-Astoria hotel.
The Philadelphia Public Ledger, the largest circulation newspaper in
Tilden's hometown, noted,
Although George T. Adee, chairman of the Amateur Rule Committee,
declared the move was not aimed at any particular individual, it is
generally understood it was designed to curb the journalistic
activities of several star players, notably William T. Tilden, 26.
The article also insinuated that the proposal reflected parliamentary
maneuvering. A similar rule change the year before, proposed as a
bylaws amendment, did not receive the two-thirds majority needed to
pass. The 1924 rule change was proposed as a resolution, which would
require only a simple majority to pass and would grant the Executive
Committee broad discretionary authority to interpret a player's
Another tennis player from Philadelphia, national intercollegiate
champion Carl Fischer, criticized the resolution. In a sidebar to
the main article, he wrote,
[Bill Tilden's] name over a story which he has written assures a
large percentage of extra readers, who may thus become interested in
the game. . . . In a manner of speaking, it is propagation. As for
the commercial angle, there is very little in it financially. The
players who write of tennis are paid about the same as other writers
and do it mostly to aid the game.
Tilden himself responded the next day. In a New York Times article,
Tilden noted that he had been a journalist for three years before he
became a top player. He had covered tennis for the Philadelphia
Public Ledger since 1915, also contributing as a drama critic.
He agreed that the USLTA had the right to prevent players from using
championships titles in bylines, but he added, "I cannot see why he
should be prohibited from writing, which is an honorable and
recognized profession." Tilden instead focused on the
widespread practice of ghostwritten articles published under the name
of famous athletes: "… nor do I see why he should be prohibited in
the use of his name, which certainly he is entitled to use always
provided that he writes personally all his own articles. No one can
or would attempt to justify selling his name to articles which he did
Others supported the committee's decision. An article in Editor &
Publisher, a newspaper industry professional journal, complained
about the practice of paying well-known athletes to write for
newspapers, referring to such athletes as "trained seals." (The
journal ignored the amateur vs. professional debate.) The editors
reported that athletes often declined interviews with other
newspapers if they had been signed to write such articles. The
article noted, "The Lawn Tennis Association has struck upon what may
be a happy solution for the difficulty."
An editorial in the same issue supported the rule change. The editorial stated
Every newspaper man will heartily commend the amateur rule committee
of the United States Lawn Tennis Association for the report just
completed, in which it lays the ground work for breaking up what has
to be the great fake of modern journalism. Buying "big names" has
long been abused, but in no other part of the paper has it reached
the depth of journalistic dishonesty than on the sport pages.
The editorial, like the article, focused not on the definition of an
amateur athlete, but on the practice of signing well-known athletes
to exclusive contracts, whereby their writing would appear in only
one or a few newspapers: "If a man is good enough to make his name
big enough to buy, then he is a public character and what he says and
does is news that belongs not to a restricted group, but to the
entire press, which is responsible for the goodwill that makes his
livelihood possible." The editorial also criticized the practice
of having a journalist ghostwrite such articles, referring to the
practice as "faking," noting, "There is no practice that is more
unfair to the honest newspaper writer."
The following week, Tilden repeated many of the arguments quoted in
the New York Times to defend his journalistic pursuits. Tilden and
Fischer argued that their work "has made [tennis] better and cleaner,
has brought more players into the field and has won national
recognition for the game." Tilden warned, "The ruling appears
drastic and the game will probably suffer through the loss of tennis
articles by men who know the game."
The proposal did receive endorsements. The California Lawn Tennis
Association and the Middle Atlantic division of the USLTA
voted to support the committee's report. Not surprisingly, the
Philadelphia District Lawn Tennis Association (for whom Tilden served
on the executive committee) opposed the new rule, by a unanimous
vote, although Tilden was not present at the meeting where the vote
Other sports governing bodies followed suit. U.S. Olympic Committee
Secretary Frederick W. Rubien cited the USLTA's action in predicting
that United State athletes would probably be barred from writing
articles at the 1924 Summer Olympics. The Public Ledger reported
that the United States Golf Association (which already prohibiting
golfers from publishing articles that they themselves had not
written) was considering a similar change in its amateur rules. It
quoted an unnamed official who said that although no such proposal
had been submitted, the USGA was closely watching the USLTA's
proposal "with a view to possible action in the near future."
The Public Ledger predicted "real fireworks" in a preview of the
February 2 meeting. The article speculated whether the
player-journalist resolution was aimed at Tilden, along with other
tennis players who also syndicated articles, including Vincent
Richards, Tilden's doubles partner. The article noted that while
Tilden wrote well, "Richards does not and but for his name would
hardly market his stuff."
At the USLTA annual meeting in New York City, Paul Gibbons, a
sectional delegate from Philadelphia, spoke in opposition of the
resolution. He argued that "limiting the journalistic activities of
the players … would deprive the public of educational articles on the
game," particularly in areas where tennis was still gaining in
popularity. Delegate Haddon Ivins of Hoboken cited the few
sportswriters covering tennis intelligently "and he asked if it would
not be advisable, therefore, for the good of the game, to encourage
players to write tennis, some of whom might make it their profession."
The two committee members, Adee and Wightman, "both took the point of
view that it would be far better that the game should suffer in loss
of interest than that its standards should be lowered," according to
the article. Adee claimed that letting the need for writers
interfere would make amateur tennis "a laughingstock," while Wightman
added, "Amateur standards far outweigh increased interest."
The resolution passed by a vote of 47,196 to 6,250, with most of the
opposition coming from the Philadelphia and Boston delegations.
The resolution supported the Amateur Rule Committee's interpretation
of the situation involving tennis players receiving payment to write
articles. The interpretation, however, used vague wording. It
focused on players who received "substantial compensation, pecuniary
gain, or emolument contemporarily with his engaging in tennis
competitions." No specific amount was given to represent
"substantial compensation." Later in the resolution, however, it
seemed to exempt players like Tilden. "But it is not intended hereby
to declare a person ineligible who has for many years been engaged in
the business of writing articles as his permanent and only business."
Tilden criticized the decision, predicting that the rule change's
supporters "will greatly regret their action." He added that the
situation would hinder the development of the game, particularly in
the Midwest, the Southwest, and the South. In his opinion, sports
journalists in those areas would not share the enthusiasm for the
game; the players themselves would have to write the articles.
Fischer, writing (ironically) a bylined commentary in the Public
Ledger, noted the subjective nature of the rule change. He quoted
Adee, in answer to a question, stating that each case would be
decided on its own merits. He wrote, "[The Executive Committee] is
undoubtedly taking a burden upon their shoulders. To decide each
case upon its own merits brings in the individual – the personal –
aspect of the situation." In such cases, a player like Tilden,
who openly defied the USLTA Executive Committee, could be at a disadvantage.
Tilden's next move came during a widely reported speech to the
Southern New England Tennis Association. He pointed out that while
he had written for newspapers since 1913, he had not competed in his
first national championship until 1916. He defended the use of
tennis players to write articles, using logic that could be applied
today to former professional athletes working as broadcast journalists:
I cannot see wherein there is any injury to the game of tennis from
players writing on the game. It seems rather that good
accrues. Certainly no one is better fitted to analyze or explain the
game than a man who is engaged in playing at the time.
In his speech, Tilden indirectly acknowledged his popularity as a
writer, but argued that his journalistic pursuits did not diminish
his commitment to the amateur spirit.
I have been, am, and always will be a firm believer in the amateur
spirit of sports. In my opinion, a man who plays a game solely for
the game's sake, not influenced where he plays by any business
relations whatsoever, is a true amateur, even though, indirectly, he
may gain a return through his fame. . . . I have never allowed
material consideration to influence my decision as to where I played
Tilden's most controversial comment, however, came later in the speech:
My future so far as one can prophesy will continue along my present
activities. . . . Should I be forced in 1925 to make my choice
between my profession and amateur tennis, I will give up tennis with
deep regret and with the feeling that I am better for having played it.
To Tilden, journalism, not tennis, was his profession. In his
opinion, he was not being asked to affirm his commitment to amateur
tennis or to stop capitalizing on his fame by writing newspaper
articles; he was being ordered to give up the profession he had
pursued since before his championship years.
The next front in the war against tennis player-journalists was the
1924 Olympics. At its March 8 meeting in New York City, the
Executive Olympic Committee passed a motion barring Americans in any
Olympic competition from writing for newspapers or any other
publication, feeling that "athletes should devote their entire time
Calling the committee's bluff, Tilden's announced that he would not
participate in the 1924 Olympics. He explained that he was under
contract to write two articles per week for a news service, and felt
obligated to honor the contract. With U.S. second-ranked player Bill
Johnston already having announced his intentions to skip the
Olympics, sports writers expressed concern about the American tennis
Concurrent with the Olympics standoff, a glimmer of hope appeared in
Tilden's relationship with the USLTA Executive Committee. A New
York Times article announced that Tilden would meet with the
committee to discuss the new rule, during the committee's monthly
meeting in New York City on March 15.
The Executive Committee, however, would not budge. They informed
Tilden that although the interpretation of the rule regarding amateur
status of player-journalists would not begin until January 1, 1925,
"if the same or similar facts exist in 1925 as exist at the present
time the committee would be likely to decide that the facts of his
case would constitute a violation of the amateur rule." The
committee told Tilden that their opinion did not represent an
official ruling, which Tilden requested, because the rule was not in
Commentary in the New York Times sports section noted the impasse,
saying that the USLTA's actions "very likely may lead the national
champion to make an immediate decision as to what course he will
take." The unidentified columnist predicted that Tilden would
announce his retirement from tennis.
Concerning the Olympic Committee, however, the commentator was more
diplomatic. While noting that the USLTA was more charitable in
putting off its rule change until January 1, 1925, the article
commended the Olympic Committee's ruling. "No coach can expect to
get the best results from his charges when they are rushing to the
telegraph wire to get off stories instead of looking strictly after
Playing in the national mixed doubles indoor tournament at Brookline,
Massachusetts, in March, Tilden repeated his intentions. He
announced that he was seeking release from his newspaper contracts to
compete in the Olympics, but also discussed his plans to leave
amateur tennis if the USLTA did not change its rules. He hinted at
accepting an offer to play professional tennis.
But his preference was to remain an amateur. To emphasize that
commitment, Tilden agreed to play on the 1924 Davis Cup team. The
USLTA released a statement from Tilden on March 22. The statement said:
Their present inclination, if confirmed officially, would force me to
cease playing professional tennis, since I cannot give up my
profession. But until that time, I am ready to play on any team of
the United States Lawn Tennis Association which it may desire.
As if to emphasize Tilden's determination, the March 29 issue of
Editor & Publisher featured an ad from Philadelphia's Ledger
Syndicate offering Tilden's writing. The package consisted of both
comments (twice a week during tennis season) and news ("dispatches
directly from the field"). 
In June, the USLTA appointed Tilden to a seven-member committee,
charged with reconsidering the player-writer rule and report to the
1925 annual meeting. Famed sports columnist Grantland Rice and
U.S. Senator George Wharton Pepper of Pennsylvania also served on the
committee, which did not include either member of the Executive
Committee that provided the rule interpretation the previous year.
Tilden's committee proposed that tennis players who also wrote for
newspapers be allowed to retain their amateur status, with certain
restrictions: the players could not write about a tournament in which
they were entered, and they could not use their championship titles
in the bylines. Under this arrangement, the player was not directly
benefiting from his or her participation in an amateur tournament,
the committee reported. The new rule also set no limit on how much
money a tennis player could receive for his or her writing.
The Times praised the proposal in its daily commentary. Its
editorial expressed relief that the rule "practically amounts to a
guarantee that there will be no repetition of the resignations from
the Davis Cup team of last season, jeopardizing the success of the
United States in the matches."
The USLTA Executive Committee unanimously approved the new rule. At
its annual meeting on February 7, 1925, the USLTA delegates also
unanimously adopted the new rule. As the Times reported, "Harmony
was restored within the U.S.L.T.A. … Lawn tennis has placed its house
in order again and the national association has written into its
by-laws one of the soundest and most equitable pieces of legislation
ever adopted by an amateur sports body."
Unfortunately, the controversy did not end there. Less than four
years later, the USLTA would ban Tilden from Davis Cup play for
violating the rule he had helped to develop. Tilden had written
about Wimbledon while competing there – the only limitation the new
rule had placed on tennis player-journalists. Although he would
be restored to the team two days before its match against Italy,
it represented yet another conflict as both sports and journalism evolved.
The USLTA's actions in amending its rules to accommodate its top
player should not be taken lightly. By exercising his personal
choice to compete when and where he pleased (unlike a professional
athlete tied by a contract), Tilden helped to ignite a controversy
that forced the USLTA to modify its policy. The exclusion of George
Adee and George Wightman from the committee that revised the
player-journalist rule signaled a power shift. The USLTA, perhaps
acknowledging the new reality both in sports and in media, accepted
the sentiments of its most popular player over its traditionally
The Victorian notion was expressed in the earlier amateur rule
interpretation – that tennis should be played strictly for love of
the game, and any financial gain, directly or indirectly, would
ultimately hurt the game. The modern notion of sport was expressed
in the 1925 interpretation – that, realistically, the growing public
interest in reading articles from well-known tennis players could
ultimately help the sport.
Clearly, the evolution has continued to the day. Not only is the
professional athlete an accepted norm, but sports television
constantly seeks former players as broadcast personalities. Current
athletes endorse products and write books to capitalize on and profit
from audience interest. Clearly, they do not face the economic ruin
that the USLTA predicted for sports participants who profit
financially from their athletic skill. However, such Victorian
attitudes provide an important barometer for measuring the changes
that have taken place in sport as the nation and its media have changed.
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