Short Column: On Northwestern, the Poisonous Culture of College Athletics & a Potential Path to Change

| July 27th, 2023

I went to St. Peter’s Prep in Jersey City, New Jersey, a noted football powerhouse. During the years I attended the school, 1996-2000, we were anything but a powerhouse. I don’t remember the records each season but I’m pretty certain we lost more games than we won, and the student body enjoyed the work of our mascots, the Marauder and Henchmen, of which I was a proud member of the latter, more than the play of the athletes on the field.

Nevertheless, during this period, the football players had the run of the school. When they didn’t want to go to class, they didn’t, claiming they required medical attention. When teachers challenged their absences, they were strong-armed by head football coach Rich Hansen and the athletics department. Remember, these guys were not “bigger than life” on campus. They were crappy football players on a crappy football team. Nobody was afraid of them. But that didn’t matter. The fear that existed, if that’s the right word, was of the empowered athletic department.

I thought about St. Peter’s Prep as the stories of hazing at Northwestern became national news, due to the brilliant student journalism at The Daily Northwestern. This is not the space to rehash those heinous allegations, but as the stories now circulate through the whole of the university’s athletics department, one thing is clear: the relationship between academic institutions and athletics has been irrevocably broken by an economic empowerment of those running athletic programs and a cult-like exaltation of the most comically fraudulent label in our culture, the “student-athlete.”

College athletics, and mostly college football, is an abhorrent, repulsive, corrupt business. Universities salivate over the financial windfall provided an elite football (or sometimes basketball) program and relish the increase in application rate that accompanies that success. But the culture of college football is forged on pee wee and high school fields all over the country, every day. Coaches are adorned with an absurd infallibility, as if they’re not just guys who likes whistles and got a discount on dry erase boards down the local Walmart. Parents behave like grotesqueries; surrealist portraits of what it means to be an adult and raise a child. And the children, who are still children even when they’ve enrolled at university, simply don’t know any better. That is why when these allegations surfaced against Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald, his players quickly released a group statement in his support. Not because they believe their behavior as a football team was okay, but because they were never taught to know any better.

Can this change? Of course, it can. But the changes need to happen at the infrastructural level.

Here’s my (admittedly small) part.

This fall I am going to be applying to PhD programs in a variety of disciplines as I continue this new academic paths. PhD programs are not like undergrad or even MA programs, especially in the humanities. You seek out programs, and professors, and departments that fit the things you want to study. You’re given a small stipend annually that funds not only your studies, but your teaching, which is a massive bargain for the universities. The “Screen Cultures” PhD program at Northwestern is one of the most dynamic and exciting in the whole of country. And this fall, I won’t be applying, despite the urging of several current professors who are alumni of the program. Every institution of higher learning in this country has its particular issues but I will not “support” a school that has willingly fostered the culture Northwestern has fostered. This may seem like a nothing gesture, and invariably the university won’t care a lick. But we do what we can do, and this is what I can do: withhold my future labor.

What can YOU do?

If you’re a parent of a child engaged in athletics, encourage them to QUESTION the authority of their coaches. Encourage them to challenge the toxic concepts of hazing or running laps in your pads in the dead heat of the summer to the point of physical exhaustion. Encourage them to always ask a coach for the “why” behind a particular instruction. (Because “I’m the coach” is not enough of an answer in this modern society.) Teach them to be willing to risk losing their particular position on the team in the name of what’s right. How would things be different at Northwestern today if a half dozen of those “student-athletes” were driven by what’s right, and not what’s “right” for the team?

If you’re an alumnus of an institution with a high-profile athletics department, support that university’s independent student journalism and tell them why you’re providing that support. Student journalists don’t care about clicks; they don’t care about access to coaches and players. They care about their future careers and know the best way to build their resumes is to do real reporting at the university level. We saw it at The Daily Northwestern. We’re seeing it at Stanford, where a freshman took down the university’s President. These are kids on the campus, living amongst the players, lurking in the shadows of the stories. Empowering them to keep the programs honest will make your Saturday afternoons far more enjoyable, I promise.

A Defining Moment?

Let a movement begin, spurred by the events on Northwestern’s practice fields, and in their locker rooms. Let us all do what we can to bring about even the slightest bit of change at the academic institutions harboring these toxic athletic cultures in the name of Big Ten television contracts. Teach those entering these cultures to do what’s right and support those within the universities who seek a more honest environment.

And then maybe, just maybe, college football can become a little less repulsive.

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