A small wave of melancholy swept over campus this past Saturday. Game day. Many invested Northwestern students watched their Wildcats suffer a disappointing defeat to Nebraska, 13-10. Personally, I did not partake in the mourning. As a Canadian attending university in the U.S, witnessing the cult-like devotion with which some Americans praise football came as a culture shock. Yes, there are football fans in Canada, but the sport certainly does not serve the same sense of national pride for the North as it does here.

But what especially surprised me is the extent to which Northwestern University, as an academic institution, places its football team and athletes on a pedestal. During freshman orientation week, all first-years were subjected to an hour long “Purple Pride” assembly. It quickly became evident that school pride revolves almost entirely around the football team, with other Big Ten sports also playing a smaller role.  The assembly almost entirely comprised learning cheers to use at specific points in football games—with accompanying choreography, no less. There was a video that portrayed our student athletes as exceptional superhuman figures, including a scene of a football player appearing to nearly walk on water as he dramatically emerged from the depths of Lake Michigan, ready to play.

Yes, building school spirit and a sense of community through sports teams can be a positive thing. Northwestern’s complete devotion to football, however, exposes many hypocrisies within the institution.

On their website, Northwestern is certainly not shy about emphasizing how much they care about student wellness, plugging their many safety initiatives: Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), Center for Awareness, Response & Education (CARE), Safe Ride and NUHelp, to name a few. Yet when it comes to funds, the wellbeing of the student body is clearly not one of Northwestern’s top priorities.

On April 5, 2018, the school officially presented Ryan Fieldhouse, a 96,135-square-feet amenity, housing an indoor football field and contributing to the remarkable $270 million the entire complex cost, all funded by the university’s “We Will” initiative . It is worth noting that to build Ryan Fieldhouse the school froze work on the completion of the Seeley G. Mudd Library, dorm construction and departmental hires, calling into question what Northwestern’s primary concerns are. Moreover, while raising such a great sum of money may seem impressive, it is important to consider that there have been no specific fundraising efforts by the university for CAPS, the primary mental health resource on campus. This is especially alarming in the light of a 2018 study which revealed CAPS to have only one clinical staff member for every 1,217 students and one counseling staff member for every 1,389.6 students. These statistics do not indicate a school that puts significant care into the health of its student body.  

Physical health is no exception. Our school’s relentless promotion of the football team is detrimental to the physical safety of the athletes. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a brain disease found in those who have suffered repeated trauma to the head, was diagnosed in 94% of athletes who played football in college or the NFL and 86% who played only in college and not the NFL. This means students who play football for Northwestern and other colleges across the country are facing serious potential danger. What’s all the more depressing about the data is that it is far from new. This particular study was done in 2018 by the VA-BU-CLF Brain Bank and supports the same information made public in 2015 by the movie Concussion, which is based on Dr. Bennet Omalu’s discoveries from 17 years ago.

So why does Northwestern, along with the rest of the United States, not care about the evidence at hand? Are tailgates, fantasy football leagues, and the Superbowl really worth continuing to put the future of so many young Americans at risk? In the case of our school, this disregard for the physical health of student athletes has also resulted in the neglect of other students mental health needs. (Though I guess it’s fine as long as the Wildcats can run their plays under ceilings 87 feet high.)

Let’s just hope that soon enough America and Northwestern alike will be able to develop a better source of patriotism and pride. Ideally, this will be one that doesn’t jeopardize the future of this country’s next generations, athletes or not, by placing them in physical and emotional harm’s way.  

Editor's Note: The views presented in this story belong to the writer are not necessarily reflective of North by Northwestern as a whole.

Thumbnail credit: Ryan Dickey from Evanston, IL / Chicago, United States [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]