LTE: Ryan Field and the Costs of Inequity


As faculty members and sports fans, we have followed the conversations about rebuilding Ryan Field with a mix of interest and uncertainty. So far, debates surrounding the proposed redesign emphasize town-gown relations: Should Evanston let NU hold major outdoor concerts in a residential neighborhood? Should the University increase financial contributions to the city in lieu of taxes? How would a new stadium shape Evanston’s economy?

To these important considerations, we add another: What would a new Ryan Field mean for gender equity? Fueled by the largest gift in NU’s history, the University plans to channel $800 million into a facility built primarily for male athletes.

Half a century after Title IX’s passage, NU must close the gap between men’s and women’s sports rather than widening it. As NU athletic director Derrick Gragg wrote last summer, NU “remains dedicated to advancing progress” for “the representation, inclusion, and engagement of women.” We’d therefore like to know how a new stadium would further NU’s commitment to gender equity. The University must explain how it would couple its $800 million investment in a men’s stadium with similar investments in female student-athletes, and in gender equity more broadly.

A state-of-the-art stadium isn’t necessarily incompatible with gender equity. NU has already committed to occasionally subcontracting with women-owned businesses during the construction process. That’s a start, but we need to think more creatively. 

In a report endorsed by the Faculty Senate in fall 2022, the Organization of Women Faculty proposed using Ryan Field as a daytime childcare facility. F.C. St. Pauli did precisely that in Germany, creating what The New York Times called “the World’s Coolest Kindergarten.” Has NU considered this proposal?

Here’s another idea: Instead of raising money by hosting loud outdoor concerts, would the University consider collaborating with women’s sports franchises throughout the region? The Chicago Red Stars, home to three Wildcat soccer alumnae, currently play in Bridgeview, a suburb southwest of Chicago. Might the Red Stars welcome a move to Ryan Field, closer to the city and easily accessible on public transit? For advice on how to flip a football field into, well, the other kind of football field, we can ask the crew at Soldier Field — home to the Chicago Fire and, at least for now, the Chicago Bears.

We understand that the focus on football is a dominant model in Division I sports and part of a broader culture that NU can’t singlehandedly change. Yes, football makes money, and that money helps fund women’s sports. But the disproportionate revenue generated by men’s sports reflects the inequality that shapes our society more broadly. As an institution of higher education with a values-driven athletics program, NU should push to change the system rather than acting in ways that sustain it. We should be leaders in increasing exposure for women’s sports on campus and beyond.

In our new age of name, image, and likeness policies, when student-athletes translate attention into money, these issues of publicity and exposure demand heightened transparency. The money NU invests in athletics can influence students’ income, rendering gender disparities all the more disquieting.

Seen in this context, Northwestern’s public relations campaign for the new stadium offers cause for concern. The University touts the new stadium as an opportunity to “showcase Northwestern University to an even broader and more global audience,” especially now that the University of Southern California and UCLA are joining the Big Ten. If the renovations proceed, will Northwestern commit to spending similar amounts of money to showcase its female student-athletes to that global audience?

Relatedly, Northwestern must release more information about its advertising practices. How much money does Northwestern spend on external ads for each of its men’s and women’s teams? Is the amount currently equal by gender? If not, will Northwestern commit to equalizing its ad buys?

“Only private dollars, all public benefits” — so say the marketing materials for the Ryan Field revamp. But as scholars of History, Political Science, Anthropology and Religious Studies, we know that inequity has costs, too. 

For one, there’s a cost for boys and girls who grow up observing that men, far more than women, are celebrated for being powerful and assertive. There’s also a cost to elevating football above other sports. We’ve already seen that cost in the recent experiences of Northwestern’s cheer team, whose reports of sexual harassment and racism went unaddressed for far too long as University leaders prioritized football fundraising over the safety of female student-athletes. 

As Washington Post columnist Kevin Blackistone (Medill ’81) concluded, Northwestern’s disregard for the cheer team — exacerbated by Mike Polisky’s disastrous promotion to Athletics Director in 2021 — demonstrated that “women remain disrespected in sports by the men who run them.” What has Northwestern done to dismantle these structural inequities?

The time is ripe for further investments in women’s sports. Viewership and revenue is already growing — just ask those of us who tried to find tickets to Northwestern’s sold-out women’s lacrosse games this spring, or the over 12 million fans who tuned into this year’s women’s March Madness final. A recent study by Deloitte consultants concluded that “women’s sports has immense potential value, not just in monetary terms, but also in terms of what it signals for gender parity.” “All interested parties” must act, Deloitte emphasizes. We believe Northwestern can and should take the lead. For starters, University leadership should publicly answer the questions we’ve posed in this letter.

Caitlin Fitz, Associate Professor of History 

Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, Professor of Political Science and Religious Studies 

Kate Masur, Professor of History and Board of Visitors Professor

Susan Pearson, Professor of History 

Amy Stanley, Wayne V. Jones II Research Professor of History 

Jessica Winegar, Professor of Anthropology 

If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.