Thursday, April 24, 2014

An open letter to my alma mater

To whom it may concern:

Yesterday a Chicago institution celebrated its 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.

But to be Jackie Robinson? Billie Jean King? Curt Flood?

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.

But good men, knowingly or not, can do bad things.

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:
This is the system the NCAA finds itself embattled to uphold, and to that end, the organization is fighting tooth and nail to do so. When seeing the facts, the things that are true, it is shameful to know my alma mater has gone full bore to fight athletes from the only avenue by which they might get, as Colter has called it, "a seat at the table." In the case of Fitzgerald, I do not blame him for having his concerns about upheaval that could destroy the current model of college athletics, nor do I blame him for concerns that a union vote could cause tensions throughout the locker room and possibly sabotage Northwestern's 2014 season -- though I believe those concerns are overblown. The Wildcats' upcoming season being thrown into turmoil is a very real prospect given the disagreement the issue could cause among 18-23-year-old men who don't really grasp all the details and have hundreds of family, friends, alum and hangers-on telling them which way to vote.

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.

My hope, however, was that this would not always be the case. My hope was that once I earned a six-figure salary, I would send a check off to Northwestern University to help others benefit from an institution that has so greatly benefited me. Unfortunately, however, that is no longer the case. I will not stop rooting for the school's athletic teams, all of which are comprised by young adults who don't deserve to be victim to a fight of grownup fiduciary interests. My plans to see Northwestern play at Penn State and at Notre Dame this fall remain intact, as do my memories of Evanston be they good or bad, drunk or sober. I will still wear purple.

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

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