“I’m incredibly proud of our young men! GO CATS!” tweeted Northwestern University football coach Pat Fitzgerald on January 28, in the wake of his players’ petition to the National Labor Relations Board to unionize. As a second-generation NU alum, I was proud, too. The students’ actions embodied what a Northwestern education is supposed to be about: questioning the status quo, engaging debate, provoking new thought. Quaecumque sunt vera, as our motto reads, “Whatsoever things are true, think on these things.”
For the past three months, robust discussion has followed about the exploitation of student-athletes at colleges and universities across the country. It moved well beyond sports pages and barrooms to lunch counters and soccer fields. Without the courage of Kain Colter and other players, this long-overdue conversation about the protection — or lack thereof — for young people recruited by academic institutions to play sports simply would not have happened.
And it scared former UConn Chancellor Mark Emmert, now head of the NCAA, witless. So much so that all UConn guard Shabazz Napier had to say was “hungry” during the Final Four and within a week, the governing body over college sports magically relaxed its rules about food restrictions for players. Emmert and his counterparts at the NCAA with their six- and seven-figure salaries have billions of reasons to be afraid. They are called football and basketball.
Let’s be honest: the issue has never been about how Northwestern treats its football team or its 97 percent graduation rate. This case has been about making a mark; beginning to relieve the death-grip of the NCAA on money and college sports; showing the rest of the nation that a college athletes’ union could work. It has been about eventually changing the dynamic where too often once-talented athletes are left without an education, a career track or a clean bill of health because of injury on the field of play for the institution they signed with. The public is generally unaware that most athletic scholarships are year-to-year agreements, leaving the student high and dry should sports-ending injury occur.
Against this backdrop, the greedy NCAA could not take the chance that a students’ union might prevail and put the first meaningful chink in its edifice. Thus, my university administration caved, turning a teachable moment into a scene that’s already played out over the decades in factories, nursing homes and Wal-Marts across the nation. Management versus labor. Scare tactics versus the opportunity for change. Fear versus fairness. In an about-face, Fitzgerald, a personal hero for nearly 20 years, wrote his players that a vote for the union was a “betrayal.” The 76 voting players have been fed a bitter diet of dire predictions and [near-threats] if they vote for the union.
The harsh irony is that these are the same adults who are supposed to be shaping tomorrow’s leaders. The coaches and administrators from Fitzgerald all the way up to President Morty Schapiro blinked in the face of the NCAA. Maybe it would have been different if NU had a few Rose Bowl victories in the win column and some bargaining power with the NCAA. Instead, they became complicit in the all-out gridiron battle to intimidate the students out of the opportunity to change the future for other athletes at Somewhere State when the “Northwestern effect” eventually cascaded down to public universities.
I’d like to know where in the NU budget I could find the line item for the high-priced lawyers doing this new dirty work. Or where the funds for the newly acquired iPads and parties for the football team materialized from. Should those funds instead have been earmarked for the student-athletes? Is it the money I paid for the season ticket I buy each year to support my team? As a private institution, NU won’t have to tell.
Thursday afternoon the full NLRB agreed to hear Northwestern’s appeal of the regional ruling that the students are de facto “employees.” During that period, Friday’s ballots won’t be counted, so time will pass with history hanging in the balance. In the meantime, my alma mater has left me seething.
“Alma mater, praise be thine, may thy light forever shine . . .” proclaims our song. This could have been Northwestern’s shining moment. Not today. Not by a long shot.
Audrey Honig Geragosian is a 1989 graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and a Northwestern football season ticket-holder. She is a freelance communications and media relations consultant.