Commentary

From time to time, the Senate Chair will publish short essays on issues affecting the community. The views expressed are solely his own. Faculty are invited to reply to faculty-senate@northwestern.edu.

Football and Planet Northwestern

In the minutes before the start of my lecture classes, I sometimes joke with students or ask them what’s on their minds. Last week, the answer was football and unions:  “I understand team members are paid tuition, room and board to play football,” one senior woman said, “but aren’t they students first?”  A younger, garrulous, male student asked: “What happens if a football player gets injured and it affects him for the rest of his life? Would a union help him then?”  A third, generally reticent woman quietly stated: “The football team lives on another planet.”

At the April 2 Northwestern Faculty Senate meeting, members debated two resolutions concerning NU football.  Some said they didn’t have enough information to form an opinion about the unionization effort. But among those who expressed a view, the predominant one was that athletes should be students first. Like my students, they were neither pro-union nor anti-union, but why-union?  Their question in others words was: “How has it come to pass that a college football union seems to have become necessary?”

The answer involves land-grant colleges, competition for students, private universities and fundraising, professional recruitment, mass media, and perhaps the US penchant for violence. (College teams each suffer an average of 10-12 concussions per year.[1]) But regardless of its basis, big-money, intercollegiate sports are increasingly in conflict with the ideals of students and faculty members at NU.

Here is some data:[2] 1) Football players at NU work at their sport between 40 and 60 hours per week for a payment (tuition, room and board) of between $61,000 and $76,000 per year, plus various allowances; 2) football players are recruited for their athletic, not academic abilities; 3) Demands on football players are so great that many require tutoring to keep their minimum required GPA, and some choose to take less demanding courses in order to maintain eligibility; 4) The team has a full-time coaching staff of 25 (serving 125 players), with the head coach (Pat Fitzgerald) paid $1.8 million per year; 5) in 2012-13, the team generated $31.1 million in income, and $21.7 million in expenses, not including the cost of football stadium maintenance. 6) A new football practice facility approved for the lakefront will likely cost in excess of $300 million.[3]

The facts above describe a bloated sports system. Unionization, approved by the regional NLRB (but now under appeal by NU), is one logical response:

With unionization, players will get a piece of the profit they create; receive long-term compensation for disabling injuries; and a experience a measure of control (“a seat at the table”) over their working lives.

Without unionization, football players will continue to watch the value they produce enter the coffers of universities, professional franchises, concessionaires, and giant media corporations; live circumscribed social and intellectual lives; and suffer injuries that may eventually disable them. 

But is unionization the only possible answer to the crisis of big sports?  With or without unionization, football players at NU and elsewhere will continue to “live on another planet”: in the one case as well-paid professionals segregated from the main intellectual and social life of the university, and in the other as minimally paid professionals similarly segregated.

What my students and colleagues appear to want instead is a system where athletes are fully engaged in the life-world of the university. This may mean recruitment of true scholar-athletes, assurance that scholarships may not be withdrawn if an athlete quits his sport; tighter limitations on the time demands of football players; compensation if football players experience a disabling, long-term, or incipient injury.

We all believe that NU should be one planet – one community -- not many.  Ongoing efforts by the NU president, provost and deans to foster cross-school programs, research collaborations, and shared curricula, as well as the strategic plan “Northwestern Will” are expressions of that conviction.  But the university’s overemphasis on big-money intercollegiate sports – football in particular -- is an impediment to the realization of that idea. 

Stephen F. Eisenman

Professor of Art History

Chair, Faculty Senate



[1] http://america.aljazeera.com/watch/shows/america-tonight/america-tonight-blog/2014/1/9/ncaa-head-games-theveryskewedconcussiondataincollegefootball.html; http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0056805.

[2] United States Government before the National Labor Relations Board Region 13, Decision: Case 13-RC-121359; On April 9, attorney's representing Northwestern requested a review of the regional NLRB ruling on the grounds of "erroneous…factual issues" and "prejudicial error." See: http://dradis.ur.northwestern.edu/multimedia/pdf/nlrb.pdf

[3] http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2014-03-13/sports/ct-northwestern-football-spt-0314-20140314_1_pat-fitzgerald-nu-officials-ryan-field