Letter to the Editor: History, logic are against unionization efforts

Norman C. Wang, McCormick '94, Feinberg '98

Dear Editor,

I would like to thank Daniel Olson for his passionate comments in “Unionization efforts won’t hurt Northwestern’s academic goals.” My original opinions were merely food for thought.

(Letter to the Editor: Unionization efforts won’t hurt Northwestern’s academic goals)

The unionization effort of the Northwestern University football players is already a public debate as evidenced by media coverage on ESPN, NPR, etc. While though the interest of an alumnus may seem intrusive, I am sure that current students will find that their ties to NU extend beyond their years on campus. We become de facto ambassadors. The state of the university is also of interest for those who look to donate for philanthropic purposes and those with children who may later consider matriculating at NU.

In 2000, the medical residents and fellows of the McGaw Medical Center of NU on the Chicago campus, where I trained, moved toward unionization due to complaints about salary, healthcare benefits and lack of concern by the administration. They were viewed as a hybrid between students and employees and had little bargaining power. The non-union McGaw Resident Fellows Forum was ultimately created to facilitate dialogue, the concerns were met and the organization functions to this day. The executive associate dean for education at the time, Dr. Raymond Curry, stated, “Collective bargaining is, by definition, an adversarial relationship, and we have great fear that creating that kind of environment — in what in our mind is still fundamentally an educational experience — is going to destroy the traditional and extremely valuable mentoring relationship with residents.” 

NU has generally been successful in admitting student-athletes dedicated to academics, addressing their needs and fielding competitive teams. It was recently reported, “Colter insisted the issue was not with Northwestern, but rather other NCAA schools that do not treat players with the same care.” Unionization is a complex, possibly irreversible process fraught with unforeseen consequences and the introduction of a third party with its own agenda. The call for this at NU where, by their own admission, their needs have largely been met is perplexing at best.

Changing the national landscape is a noble endeavor. Most agree student-athletes need a voice in decision-making processes and increasing the role of the existing NCAA student-athlete advisory committee. Creation of separate football and men’s basketball committees are potential avenues to start. A non-academic farm system, similar to minor league baseball, offers another option. If union formation is ultimately needed, would it not make sense to start where there is a clear problem?

Despite well publicized shortcomings, there has been some progress by the NCAA. Mark Dent of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported in May 2013 that four-year football scholarships were standard when introduced in 1957 but changed to renewable scholarships when athletic directors were “irate at underperforming athletes or those who no longer wanted to play.” That decision was reversed in 2011, and the Big Ten Conference has been a leader in reinstituting multi-year scholarships. In addition, not all universities make “millions of dollars.” Nearly half of Football Bowl Subdivision programs actually lose money. Some survive on subsidies extracted from the general student body as “student activity fees.” If these are businesses and athletes are employees, should they not be shut down and/or the employees fired?

The transition from student-athlete to athlete-employee may appear to be merely a semantic issue or acknowledgement of present reality. Appellations have a curious way to bias how one is viewed by others and oneself. A 2013 article by Emily Allard, an NU softball player, suggested that a schism between athletes and non-athletes already exists. The current academic scandal at the University of North Carolina  involving their football and men’s basketball student-athletes warns of the potential for lucrative athletic programs to steer highly respected universities off course. Only those whose vision is clouded by the mirage of NU exceptionalism will believe that a similar scenario cannot occur in Evanston.

The NU football program is a valued aspect of extracurricular life, no more and no less than others. There is an important philosophical distinction between a student activity that garners media attention and a university-operated entertainment business. One is consistent with academia, and the other is not. Many universities have long crossed the line, but NU does not need to be complicit in the hypocrisy. As I previously stated, if NU reaches that point then the program should cease to exist. Ultimately, the mission of the University should not be sacrificed on the altar of the sports-industrial complex.

I thank you for entertaining the musings of this aging and largely irrelevant alumnus.

I wish the best of luck to Daniel Olson and the NU student body.


Norman C. Wang, MD, MS
McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science ’94
Feinberg School of Medicine ’98