Balk: The power of the modern student-athlete


Tim Balk, Assistant Opinion Editor

Student-athletes are unique.

They are unique despite the NCAA’s insistence that the sports they play are nothing more than extracurricular educational pursuits. Putting aside many valid questions about the NCAA’s conception of modern college athletes, it is clear student-athletes are different from their peers. At a place like Northwestern, this is especially true for those who participate in the revenue sports of basketball and football.

Student-athletes are unique for obvious reasons. There are the burdens they face, such as the rigors of practices, travel and games. There’s the attention they receive and the celebrity status they can attain. There’s the unique social community they occupy on a campus.

But student-athletes are also unique in the power they possess.

The power of student-athletes in revenue sports is immense and regularly underestimated. Last week at the University of Missouri, players on the school’s football team forced the resignation of University President Timothy Wolfe by threatening to boycott Saturday’s game against Brigham Young University. Racism and institutional negligence were the fundamental issues in the Missouri case, but the case also demonstrated the power of the student-athlete in applying positive pressure regarding these issues.

Make no mistake, the fact that the school could have lost more than $1 million in revenue was a major driver of Wolfe’s resignation. Grad student Jonathan Butler’s hunger strike, which began on Nov. 3, lacked the swift impact of the football team’s mass action, which was supported by Gary Pinkel, the team’s head coach. While this disparate impact might be troubling, it does serve to confirm the voice student-athletes possess at schools with major athletics programs.

Much has been made of the question of whether and how student-athletes should be paid, and the issue still floats up in the air. But student-athletes hold immense “power of the purse” because of the economic importance of revenue sports in modern higher education.

College football and basketball function in much the same way as the NBA and NFL do. They have huge followings, produce tremendous revenue and provide glory and rallying points for the cities and universities they represent. Schools like NU not only derive revenue from football and basketball, but also they use them as representations of the school and a selling point to potential students as well as potential donors.

This gives athletes leverage, at NU and at colleges across the nation.

At Missouri, student-athletes used their power to effect positive change. The Missouri football players were able to give voice to important concerns that otherwise seemed to be falling on deaf ears. That show of power will inevitably lead to a greater recognition of student-athletes’ power by schools and by the student-athletes themselves.

These athletes possess a voice that no other groups on campuses have, not even members of the student media. I did not initially hear about the protests that have engulfed Yale recently via the mainstream media. Rather, I uncovered it through the tweets of Justin Sears, the Bulldogs’ star basketball player. Admittedly, I’m a college sports fan, but that’s kind of the point — college athletics has become one of America’s great religions.  

Here on our campus, the women’s basketball team wore warmup shirts in solidarity with Missouri on Sunday, again demonstrating the positive voice student-athletes possess. Though comparatively small, this valuable action demonstrates that student-athletes here too recognize their voices.

We may be entering a period where student-athletes see their power unleashed. Hopefully they will wield it wisely.

Tim Balk is a Medill sophomore. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].