Pillote: Keeping faith in college athletics

Bobby Pillote, Reporter

I first visited Northwestern on Sept. 29, 2012. The Wildcats hosted the Indiana Hoosiers in football that day, and the excitement on campus was palpable.

Students walked up and down Sheridan Road clad in their purple regalia. Campus was eerily quiet, because of course everybody was at Ryan Field, and I delighted in our tour guide giving us regular score updates as he led us around. NU won the game 44-29, and when I opened the newspaper Monday morning the Cats — my Cats — were ranked. I was sold.

Athletic prominence became a big part of my college decision process from that point on (sorry, Middlebury) and naturally turned into a major part of my undergraduate experience as well, though not for the reasons I expected. I imagined cheerily reveling in the newfound success of our football team, but reporting on NU sports for The Daily exposed me to the dark side of college athletics.

First came Kain Colter’s efforts to unionize the football team. Odd revelations about the team handbook used during the time of the unionization push surfaced later. Johnnie Vassar’s lawsuit alleging he was unfairly forced off the men’s basketball team lurked in the background of the Cats’ historic run to the NCAA Tournament. Athletic director Jim Phillips broke ground on a $260 million athletics palace, one of the most expensive in the country. And football players Collin Ellis and Matthew Harris were each forced to retire from the sport they love due to repeated concussions without ever earning a dime for their athletic talents.

These weren’t the headlines I thought I would be reading over the next four years that sunny September afternoon.

Such stories chipped away at the naive view of college sports I held as a high school senior. My pessimism grew, and as a journalist I felt complicit in benefiting from and perpetuating a flawed system. After nearly losing my lunch watching Harris’ concussion in 2014 against Penn State, I wondered whether I should repudiate college sports altogether.

But I still have some faith. College sports are messy, backward and occasionally awful, but lost among the endless lawsuits and banal debates are the thousands of stories about college athletics getting things right. Bright and talented people around the country have an opportunity to earn a degree while doing something they love, and that’s a beautiful thing.

Sanjay Lumpkin is a wonderful example. His statistics hardly merit a footnote in the NU record book, but he’ll be remembered by a cohort of Cats fans for his grit and leadership on NU’s first-ever NCAA Tournament team. It was a tremendous pleasure to watch him grow and develop as a player over four years and to root for him as a peer and not just as a distant athlete.

Likewise, I’m inspired by the story of Dwight White. The former football player persevered through a rocky season as NU’s nickelback in 2013, only to find out a year later he had to retire because he was born with just one kidney. Despite losing his playing career, White kept a role close to the football team as a graphic designer in the communications department, and makes some pretty impressive art of his own.

I could take up thousands of words recounting my favorite stories about NU sports. Bit by bit, these tales rebuilt my belief that something about college athletics is worthwhile, and through four years of sports highs and lows I’ve become anchored to these stories and the people behind them.

The NCAA, the Big Ten and Northwestern all have considerable work to do when it comes to making the college athletics system more reasonable and fair for the students who participate in it, and I’m glad my time with The Daily opened my eyes to that reality. All the stories I’ve had the privilege of hearing and sharing have reinforced my belief that it’s a system worth fighting for.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @bobbypillote