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On college athletics, community and campus life without sports

This sucks, but we will get through it.

Inside NU co-editor-in-chief Lia Assimakopoulos shares her sentiments following the postponement of Big Ten fall athletics and the uncertainty that remains as we await news on a possible spring season.

I have a confession to make. I was born and raised a fan of a different Big Ten team. Well, at the time I guess they were technically in the ACC, but regardless, my loyalty didn’t start with the ‘Cats.

Growing up 20 minutes from Maryland’s campus with a father, uncle, aunt and entire extended community of Terps alumni around me, it was pretty hard not to support the hometown team — especially when it came to basketball.

My dad took me to games when I was young. Our entire basement to this day is adorned with Terps memorabilia, including a life-sized signed poster of Len Bias that hangs in our stairwell. My entire extended family assumed one day I’d be a student in the crowd passing the Maryland flag overhead to cover the student section at the Xfinity Center.

But they were wrong. I decided Northwestern was the school for me. A school over 700 miles away in a city I had spent a total of five days in before where I knew nobody. I had never spent more than three weeks away from home, but for some reason, I hopped on a plane and started my future — and I was terrified.

I’m someone who likes to plan out my life a lot and am a methodical thinker in everything I do, but ironically, my college decision process — one of the most important choices I would ever make — was chosen on some pretty surface level attributes.

I knew I liked Northwestern for its strong journalism program, location, size and campus. I thought the student body seemed welcoming. But to be honest, a primary reason (behind my major) that I chose Northwestern was football.

No, seriously. Here is my pros and cons list from 2017 with Big Ten football coming in at second overall.

I literally crossed schools off my list if they didn’t have a football team or a good one at that. I used to joke in high school that whichever school on my list went furthest in the March Madness tournament would be the school I attended. And while that was a joke of course, the real reasons behind my decision weren’t far off.

In the weeks leading up to my departure for college, I was utterly terrified. I come from a huge, close-knit Greek community with 35 members in my immediate family alone. It’s pretty rare for someone to go far for school — especially somewhere that’s a plane ride away. As dramatic as this may seem, though, the thing that got me through it and excited for the adventure was football.

I joined Inside NU the August before my freshman year and was immediately thrown into discourse of Northwestern football. I had no idea who Paddy Fisher or Clayton Thorson were, but I went with it and dove in head first.

Myself and the other rising freshman at the time quickly started a group chat to talk about our new team. We suffered alongside each other as ‘Cats lost to Akron and Duke before we even arrived on campus. Football is what helped me make my first college friends.

The adjustment to college was one of the hardest things I ever had to do. I’m pretty sure I cried myself to sleep every night from the day I arrived on campus until Thanksgiving and almost refused to go back after the break. I had friends. Classes were fine, but it was hard. I was forced to leave a community that had been there by my side for 18 years to be dropped in the deep end with no one.

I longed to find that community again in Evanston, and quite frankly, it was Northwestern athletics that brought it for me.

While I was in what felt like a completely new world, sports were the one familiar attribute. I had grown up watching every sport as a die-hard fan. They were always my release from the stresses that life brought. And in the loneliest time of my life, it was sports that made me feel a part of this campus and made me feel like I belonged to something bigger.

You might be thinking, “Sure, it’s easy to rally a community when their team is heading to the Big Ten championship game or the Holiday Bowl,” but it wasn’t that. During the winter and spring quarters of my freshman year, I took a step back from sports. Sorority rush was consuming, and school got hard. I didn’t feel like I had the time to write like I did in the fall.

But those months became even lonelier. I lost contact with a lot of the Inside NU staff for a period of time and knew the void in my life was left by sports. Sophomore year had its challenges too, and Northwestern athletics saved the day again. When I didn’t want to deal with college drama on Saturday mornings, I escaped to the Ryan Field press box or to some other Big Ten stadium. When social and academic life became a challenge in the winter, I’d spend all hours of the night covering the men’s and women’s basketball teams in Welsh Ryan Arena. Rather than sulking and complaining about how hard life can be, Northwestern sports gave me a purpose and allowed me to channel my energy into something productive.

After Tuesday’s news of a second consecutive season without sports, I’ll have to find a new way to replace the role college football has played in my on-campus experience thus far. I know it won’t be easy, and I’ll remain optimistic for the spring, but I’m not the primary victim here. My heart goes out to all the Big Ten and Pac-12 athletes and coaches right now. If it’s hard for me and our staff at Inside NU, I can only imagine what they’re going through, and I am truly sorry. But I always believe everything happens for a reason, and their time to shine will come.

I was a three-sport athlete throughout high school, and I know what it means to invest everything into a game. I understand the desire to want to play, even if it may be unsafe. When you love something enough, you’re willing to risk everything for it.

These past few days have been eye-opening for me. The way that the college football community has almost mourned the loss of the season just proves the magnitude of sports in our society. While I know this is hard for every member of the Northwestern community and college football world, next to the players and team staff, it is hardest for the student body. We have four years on our campuses and are told they will be the best four year of our lives. How can we truly believe that when it feels like everything we love is being taken away? It’s a question I’ve grappled with nonstop for the past six months, but I know we’re all getting stronger because of it.

I once heard Mike Greenberg speak at a Northwestern event, and he said something that has resonated with me a lot these past few months. He said: “The reason I love sports is that people invest everything in something that means absolutely nothing.” I’ve thought about that quote for a while and what sports mean in the context of our society — especially in times of pain and suffering.

We have assigned such immense value to something that really is so arbitrary and is quite literally just a game. People make it their livelihood — or dedicate their careers to watching and following these games. It’s quite astonishing when you think about it.

At the same time, if I have learned anything since this virus began, it’s that sports hold incredible value. Because if something has the power to make you happy and put a smile on your face even when the whole world seems to be crumbling around you — that is something special. And I know the Northwestern community will anxiously await that feeling again.