Nadkarni: Academics not the focus of college sports, even at Northwestern, Notre Dame


Rohan Nadkarni, Reporter


Northwestern’s academics have long been a safety net for the football program. It’s one I’ve used several times. When our team isn’t performing on the field, I think, at least these players are succeeding in the classroom. When I’m arguing with someone who goes to a school with a great football program, I can point out with self-righteousness that our football team could be good too — if we didn’t care so much about education.

Academics are more than just a safety net, however. They’re a smoke screen, a confidence trick or the magician’s attractive assistant. While we at academically oriented schools — like NU and this week’s opponent Notre Dame — focus on the grades and feel better about ourselves, college football programs, even NU, continue to profit greatly off the backs of players who are unfairly treated.

The romanticism of NU football and academics goes hand in hand with the ethos of its head coach, the hard-nosed, stats-are-for-losers Pat Fitzgerald. He is a symbol of the old school, the traditional — the purity of college football. He was an unheralded recruit who made the College Football Hall-of-Fame and has dedicated his life to the sport.

This romanticism, however, is blinding. NU — and to an extent its Saturday opponent Notre Dame — could be doing things “the right way,” as their defenders love to point out. I know I felt better in the past thinking that the NCAA’s problems don’t extend to this school, because our players are required to perform in the classroom. But that reasoning is becoming increasingly flawed. Romanticizing NU’s commitment to academics, whatever level that commitment may be, is not a good enough reason to ignore the school’s association with the worst deal in sports.

Notre Dame faced its own issue this year when four players were dismissed from the team due to academic fraud. This dismissal one year after Saturday’s starter at quarterback Everett Golson was suspended for cheating on an exam. But it’s hard to blame these players when the culture at schools, even at Notre Dame, especially at Notre Dame, prioritizes athletic success.

Players aren’t getting a free education, not when the pressure to perform on the field is so great. Ask yourself the last time a star quarterback missed a game because he wanted to study for a big test. The fact that this notion still exists, the idea that players aren’t pouring in blood, sweat and tears to earn those scholarships, is embarrassing.

As the NCAA makes television deals in the billions, coaches make salaries in the millions and NU collects its revenue-sharing check from the Big Ten, don’t let anyone convince you this is about anything other than money. The academics argument is a con, one that has pulled on fans’ — especially NU fans’ — heartstrings for much too long.

In an ideal world, the NCAA doesn’t exist, and the power is in the hands of the players, the people we actually watch college football for. In the real world? It’s time for colleges to at least offer the basics. That means post-graduate pensions, comprehensive medical coverage for every player and the right to profit off your likeness. Those are just a few ideas, but those are less important right now. It’s more important who is going to actually push for the rights of athletes.

And it needs to start here. If NU prides itself on doing the right thing, prides itself on being a forward-thinking institution, then it should be the University taking the proper steps in fighting for the rights of its student-athletes. NU needs to prove it can do what’s right, and not just be another institution that reinforces systems of racism, classism and, yes, the exploitation of college athletes.

Change is coming to the NCAA, sooner rather than later, and it needs to come to NU. The parallel is on the field. The Cats’ once-revolutionary spread offense used to inspire coaches at different schools to include the elements into their offenses. Now, schools like Oregon and Baylor have turned themselves into perennial contenders with sophisticated schemes. NU will continue to fall behind what’s right if it clings to academics as a justification for being complicit in the NCAA’s con.

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Twitter: @MiamiRohan