100th birthday. Wrigley Field, a stadium so steeped in lore, tradition and beauty that it's easy to forget its primary tenant last won a championship six years before it opened, is a landmark that holds a unique and rich position in the culture of Chicago. As I read through the series of articles praising this historic structure, many of my thoughts went to my own experiences within its walls. While a student at Northwestern University I attended my first of many games at the Friendly Confines. That first one came during New Student Week my freshman year, when I rode the L down to Addison by myself to watch a meaningless game, as the Cubs had clinched the division the day before. In October of my freshman year, my high school buddy Josh and I stood on Sheffield and Waveland during Game 7 of the NLCS to watch whether it was misery or joy that ensued (it was misery). I went to every game the Mets played at Wrigley while I was in school, with the lone exception being a series that took place while I was back home in New York that coincided with my 21st birthday. I once saw the Mets nearly get no-hit at Wrigley, still one of my most vivid baseball memories. I attended several NU day at Wrigley student events as an undergrad, and my favorite memory in the building came in 2010, when Northwestern played Illinois in football at Wrigley in a game that brought out thousands of alums, was the scene of ESPN College Game Day and prompted Wrigley's famous marquee to be painted purple.
There is a common thread here.
I associated many of my experiences at Wrigley with my alma mater, an institution of its own impressive stature that I am all too willing to brag about to friends and coworkers who have no interest in hearing it. I have an exorbitant amount of purple shirts, Northwestern football jerseys and formal purple and black shirt and tie combinations because of my alma mater. I spend every Saturday in the fall watching Northwestern with my fellow alums, and over the course of my undergraduate education and the nearly seven years since I graduated from school, I have traveled to Madison, Wisconsin (twice), Minneapolis (twice), Iowa City, Iowa, Boston, West Point, New York, back to Chicago (thrice), to Champaign, Illinois and Berkeley, California to watch Northwestern's football and basketball teams play. My fandom and dedication, I feel, is not up for debate.
However, as my thoughts of Wrigley meandered over to my thoughts of Northwestern yesterday, my school made news of its own -- as it has been wont to do over the past few months -- that left me unsettled. I am proud of my school, and never was I more proud than in January when Kain Colter became the public face of the fight to unionize college athletics.
There are times when we can be proud of our teams and cheer them on for one solitary year of potential greatness. Anyone who has walked through the arch at the corner of Sheridan and Chicago on a daily basis knows all about Northwestern's miracle run to the Rose Bowl in 1996 for instance. But what Colter's movement presented was not the chance to win a championship that one school gets to hang a banner for and cling to. This was something different.
What the CAPA unionization movement presents is to forever change a broken system. That is a special type of greatness that not only presents few opportunities for achievement, but that can be forever remembered by college athletes not simply in Evanston, but across the country. We can talk all we want about Darnell Autry, Steve Schnurr and current NU coach Pat Fitzgerald for their role on the Rose Bowl team.
That is a special kind of greatness that changes the course of history. This was a chance for Northwestern's name to always be attached to a moment where an immoral system of indentured servitude was leveled for the sake of something far more just.
In response, a university that could have been at the forefront of an inevitable movement in college athletics has instead clung to its money like a billionaire who only tips 10%, decrying the growing union movement and proliferating the idea that paying college athletes will fundamentally change college athletics in an untenable way. Putting aside the fact that Colter and the CAPA unionization movement have not actually demanded that players be paid for their services despite being the primary cog in a billion-dollar enterprise, none of this is a particular surprise.
I am not naive about the practical nature of internal politics, and I know that Fitzgerald and Northwestern have their hands tied; they must toe the NCAA's ludicrous line and many of the fundamental changes CAPA is calling for are out of NU's control. It is not hard to see that Fitz himself has been put in an impossibly difficult position, publicly opposing a union despite publicly supporting his players in the immediate aftermath. I have met Pat Fitzgerald. As a sports reporter for three years and eventually the Sports Editor of The Daily Northwestern, I have interviewed Fitz multiple times. While I find it hard to imagine he remembers me, his cell number is still in my phone, assuming he hasn't changed it. He is a good man. He is a solid football coach, a tremendous recruiter, and when he says he cares about and loves the young men on his football team, I believe every word he says.
What the football program, and the university as a whole, are reportedly involved in, is a very bad thing. According to the New York Times and other sources, Northwestern has engaged in a variety of tactics in an attempt to convince football players ahead of tomorrow's union vote not to vote in the affirmative, and released several memos to players that misleadingly color the prospect of a union in a starkly negative light. In addition, rumors abound that former players have been brought into the facilities to talk players out of voting yes, that players are being told the University's soon-to-be built lakeside athletic complex will go up in smoke with a union, that the players themselves will lose networking connections with former alums if they vote yes or that alumni donations will plummet if the players are so bold as to seek healthcare for injuries that will affect them for the rest of their lives. The union-busting has gotten so dramatic that former players have begun to voice concerns that the University is inappropriately trying to impact the process.
Northwestern's official motto, like so many other cheesy Latin university mottos, is "Quaecumque Sunt Vera," which translated means "Whatsoever, things are true." Well, whatsoever arguments Northwestern, some of its former players or the NCAA might be trying to foist onto a group of overwhelmed and underprepared young men that probably don't grasp the wide-ranging ramifications of what they're tasked with doing tomorrow, these things are true:
- The term "student-athlete" is not a designation of principle. It is a term invented by the NCAA in the 1950s to avoid paying workers' comp benefits to a widow of a former player who died as a result of his injuries playing college football. At this point it serves no purpose but to provide legal grounds to deny college athletes full benefits to which a worker is entitled.
- Players do receive a scholarship for their trouble, but their scholarship does not cover all of the out-of-pocket expenses that come with a college education.
- Players are almost entirely unable to take on jobs to cover these costs due to NCAA guidelines, and would likely not have the time to do so if they could.
- Calling the "education" most scholarship athletes receive at a Division-I major conference school anything close to an education is ludicrous at best.
- Even at schools where fake classes aren't provided for scholarship athletes, players are often steered away from classes that could interfere with practice time or are challenging enough that they might jeopardize a player's athletic eligibility.
- Players suffer injuries when they play college football that can impact them for the rest of their lives. Universities are not required to cover the cost of ensuing medical care.
- Athletic scholarships are not guaranteed for the duration of their undergraduate education.
- Football players often spend 50-60 hours per week on practices or team-related activities.
- Some major Division I programs graduate dramatically low percentages of their players in revenue sports.
- Players and coaches in major programs fly chartered jets to away games in what are de facto business trips.
- NCAA President Mark Emmert makes $1.7 million per year.
- Northwestern University President Morton Shapiro makes roughly $900,000 a year.
- Pat Fitzgerald makes more than $2 million per year.
- Alabama football coach Nick Saban earned more than $5.5 million in 2013, while Division I football coaches make an average of more than $1.5 million per year.
- The BCS's current television contract with ESPN for its Division I college football playoff will pay out $5.64 billion over 12 years.
- In 2010, the NCAA signed a television contract with CBS/Turner for its annual Division I college basketball tournament that will pay out $10.8 billion over 14 years.
- Over the calendar year from July 2012 through June 2013, NCAA schools earned $4.6 billion in merchandise sales.
- After winning the NCAA championship earlier this month, UCONN guard Shabazz Napier said there are nights that he goes to bed hungry because of NCAA regulations on athletes' meals, which were hastily changed following the comments.
The season may end up being sacrificed. But hey, Rosa Parks never got to work that day either. The price of change is often high, but often worth it.
Northwestern's regimented anti-union fight was unfortunate and predictable, but it has taken on an ugly and condescending edge that has wounded the school spirit of more than one of my close friends and fellow alums. Statements by University President Emeritus Henry Bienen that allowing a union might prompt Northwestern to leave Division I altogether when there are billions to be made are as insulting to one's intelligence as they are absurd. The argument that alumni donations might suffer as a result of a union is even crazier.
The idea that alumni donations could drop from any major event like this becomes even more laughable when the Northwestern money machine is put in perspective. Over the course of my post-graduate life I have been solicited for donations to the Young Alumni Fund by Northwestern on a weekly basis. To say these phone calls come regularly would be an understatement. Over the past I have been called by Northwestern while at weddings, while tailgating for a Bruce Springsteen concert and once on my birthday at 3 a.m. (though to be fair, I was in Europe at the time). For those calls to continue to come at such a pace, I can only assume the current system for alumni donations is not only working, but working so well that few graduates will take the moral stance of refusing to donate if the players form a union.
While I do find the regular calling incessant, I have donated in the past. For any Northwestern employees who might read this and seek to research this for discrediting purposes, I will save your time. I'm fairly certain I've only donated to the university once and that it was a grand total of $10. This, however, is not because I inherently disagree with the notion that an organization with a recently-valued endowment of $7.9 billion needs my 50 bucks, though I don't think that argument is invalid. It is because I haven't yet been told of a way to directly steer my donations to the maintenance staff in dorm halls (That is not a joke. Anyone who has seen a bathroom of a freshman dorm on a Sunday morning knows these people perform miracles on par with sainthood.) and it is because I am not rich. I am not poor, but I did not choose the type of career path that will earn me my first million by the age of 30. It is simply not in the offing and while I'm not scraping to get by financially, donating to an already rich alma mater has not seemed particularly pressing.
But as the past few weeks leading up to this union vote have shown me, at this moment this is not an institution that I can be proud of.
Until my school gets on the right side of history, by the force of its own hand or someone else's, it will not see another dime of my money through alumni donations. Northwestern University has made it very clear that it has no interest in sharing its money with the people that most publicly are contributing to its financial success.
I see no reason why I should either.
David Kalan, B.A.
Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences
Northwestern University, Class of 2007