Schuman: Northwestern fans, beware the college sports-industrial complex

Max Schuman, Reporter

Northwestern has spent a ton of money on athletics over the course of my four years at this school. It sunk $265 million into the palatial practice facilities of Ryan Fieldhouse, another $110 million into an update of Welsh-Ryan Arena, and millions more into long-term contracts for football coach Pat Fitzgerald and men’s basketball coach Chris Collins.

With the clear blessing of sports fans in high places, like University President Morton Schapiro, it seems NU is well on the path to becoming a bonafide sports school. But, as a student, that’s what I’m afraid of most.

It’s really hard to see how investing piles of money into the athletic department advances what should be NU’s central goal: Giving students an environment in which they can best take advantage of opportunities to learn and prepare for their futures. How do opulent new facilities help students struggling with the high cost of attendance or mental health issues? How do they promote diversity and prevent sexual violence on campus?

Of course, there’s no obvious reason why a University with more than $10 billion in endowment and the capacity to raise billions from its network of donors couldn’t pour resources into both athletics and the institutions needed to give the rest of its students the best chance to flourish. But the energy for fortifying and reimagining sports at NU hasn’t carried over to addressing other fundamental structural problems on campus, ones with wide-reaching consequences that may be harder to solve but could lead to bigger impacts as well. It may not be a choice between the two mutually exclusive options, per se, but it’s sure seemed like one to date.

NU is hardly the first school to make this choice. Across America, athletic departments operate like parasites in universities, with the shared goal of continuing to grow and spread: more revenue, bigger facilities, better recruiting, more wins. By taking its first steps down that path, NU — once viewed as the black sheep of the Big Ten — is proving to have more in common with its brethren than ever before.

I won’t claim to know where the money for these athletics endeavors comes from and whether it could easily be transported elsewhere. However, I do think it’s reasonable to claim there must be some opportunity cost to investing money in sports while NU has attempted to take bites out of spaces for marginalized communities on campus and leaves its mental health care system underfunded. And based on how the arms race for facilities and salaries has played out around the country, I imagine this won’t be the last time the school shells out big money now that it’s officially joined the party.

It’s possible that the two worst settings for critical, big-picture reflection are a sporting event and a busy newsroom; unfortunately, those are where I’ve spent almost all my time as a staffer at The Daily’s sports desk. I love sports, and have been incredibly fortunate to cover NU’s back-to-back bowl wins and its first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance in men’s basketball. But by the very act of covering these events breathlessly, I’ve helped contribute to an environment that treats athletics as a worthwhile investment for a school that has many flaws it doesn’t seem all too interested in addressing.

I don’t think that should be the case, and that’s why I want to make up for lost time with my final treatise in The Daily’s hallowed pages. I want to remind NU fans that there’s more to this school than its sports teams. I enjoy wins, bowl berths and tournament bids as much as the next guy, but those exploits on the field ring hollow if the University doesn’t try to take care of its deeper issues, too.

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Twitter: @maxschuman28