McMullan: This won’t change college athletics

Mike McMullan, Guest Columnist

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On Friday, members of the Northwestern football team will vote to decide whether or not they want to alter the landscape of college “athletics” by forming a union. I put “athletics” in quotations because it seems this rather vague term is being misused in these discussions; this is a historic decision for college football, which is seemingly now unaffiliated with college athletics.

The sport of football is evolving into something bigger than NU and bigger than college athletics. We all know how much revenue football generates — heck, one of the biggest reasons Kain Colter was able to make his case to the National Labor Relations Board was because of the revenue. The insane amount of money football brings in annually gives the team’s workmanlike commitment real value. The work each player puts in every week turns a profit, much like work at a company leads to growth. If football indeed falls under college athletics, the implication is that the value of effort in any NCAA sport is no longer results-oriented, but gauged via profitability.

This is a big moment for college football because if this labor union is established, they have the unique ability to collectively bargain and strike. Eventually, football players would no longer be amateurs or student-athletes. Football would no longer be bound to traditional NCAA rules; football would no longer be a part of the NCAA.

Other, non-revenue-generating sports will never have this luxury. Wrestling is not the most spectator-friendly sport out there; to the average sports fan, the scoring is complicated, the action can lull and oh my God, what are those funny outfits they’re wearing? The NCAA is not generating billions of dollars off of my actions on the mat. If our team somehow was able to form a union and go on strike, our absence from competition would result in the termination of our program, fewer opportunities for prospective student-athletes and the diluting of a highly concentrated pool of competitors. If I choose to start a union, my sport will only die faster.

The wrestling team had one of its best seasons in recent memory, finishing in the top 10 at the national tournament and crowning the school’s first ever freshman NCAA champion, Jason Tsirtsis, at 149 pounds. We know the success our lacrosse team has year in and year out, proving to be a benchmark of excellence for both NU and the NCAA. Our field hockey team was named Big Ten regular season champions this past season and our men’s soccer team won back to back Big Ten regular season titles in 2011 and 2012. Our fencing team has had a slew of All-Americans the past few years, and our softball team qualified for the NCAA tournament in 2012. If this decision goes through it validates one thing for the rest of us in college athletics: From a fiscal standpoint, our actions have little value.

I think that’s OK, though, and I feel like a lot of other student-athletes at NU would agree with me. Sure, our product isn’t as flashy and fan friendly as the spectacle of college football, but I like to think that the hours we put in every week to work toward our individual goals still hold merit. We recognize that we are privileged individuals who have the unique opportunity to play games we love at the highest possible level. For most of us, this isn’t a farm league that’s getting us ready for the next step — this is the final chapter on a lifetime of commitment and sacrifice, and preparation for sustainability after it’s all over.

I’ll never understand the position our football players are in right now. I’ve never had to work long hours every week only to feel like I’m being exploited for financial gain. But I do work long hours every week, week after week, in hopes that my work will help me achieve my goal of becoming a national champion. The football team has a chance to make history on Friday with this monumental decision. But college athletics will be unchanged; the sweat, the sacrifice and the love that satisfies the rest of us will prosper and perpetuate our drive toward excellence.

Mike McMullan is a three-time NCAA All-American wrestler and a Medill undergraduate.

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