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Op-Ed: It’s time to stop contextualizing the greatness of Northwestern’s Olympic sports teams

Let’s give greatness the respect it deserves.

Disclaimer: of the tweets featured in this article, one of them is from Northwestern Wildside, an account that I help run. I’m not calling people out to start drama, but instead, am pointing out the errors that have been made by myself and others so that we can work to correct them.

On Saturday, after two-and-a-half quarters of watching Northwestern football get its teeth kicked in, I tweeted this from the account of Northwestern Wildside, the official student section of Northwestern Athletics:

Then a few hours later, I really wished I hadn’t sent that. Not because it knocked the football team, but because that tweet, in effect, disrespected the non-football teams mentioned, namely volleyball, which is finishing its season, the basketball teams, who are beginning their seasons, and field hockey, which will play Harvard in the NCAA Semifinals this Friday.

I fell into a trap that I think a lot of NU fans, ranging from students to journalists, fall into: using the success of Olympic teams to mask the struggles of revenue sports (men’s basketball and football). And yes, this may all be in good fun and it may make the bad times in the revenue sports hurt a little less knowing that there are other sports we can turn to. But when doing this, we’re disrespecting the Olympic teams by only recognizing them when it’s opportunistic and doing so under the veil of the revenue teams.

As a Northwestern community, we need to make a change. Whether it be how we talk about the teams on social media, write about them in articles or support them by going to games, it’s time for us to respect the greatness of Northwestern’s Olympic sports teams in their own right, not with the qualification of comparison to men’s basketball or football.

Why are Northwestern’s Olympic teams so often used as a crutch? Because they’re awesome. I could devote more than a full article to going over each of Northwestern’s 17 programs other than the revenue sports, but to give a quick rundown on some of the recent successes:

  • The aforementioned field hockey team upset three-time reigning National Champion UNC in the first round of this year’s NCAA tournament before beating second-seeded Iowa on its home turf for the second time this season.
  • Women’s basketball and softball each won a game in their respective NCAA Tournaments last year.
  • Lacrosse made it to the Final Four of last year’s NCAA Tournament before falling to Syracuse.
  • Both men’s and women’s tennis won a round in last year’s NCAA Tournaments.
  • Fencing came in third at last year’s NCAA Championships.
  • Irene Kim of Northwestern women’s golf represented Team USA at the 25th Arnold Palmer Cup.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are a lot of talented athletes on this campus, and they’re deserving of so much more recognition than they get. So yes, it is a good thing that their success is talked about. But they aren’t talked about nearly enough, and when they are, it is often linked to Northwestern’s revenue sports.

One of the most well-known examples of this phenomenon comes from 2020, during Northwestern women’s basketball’s amazing Big Ten title run. One would think that with the historic performance of the team, media outlets would cover the emergence of superstar Veronica Burton, the indomitable competitor that is Lindsey Pulliam or any of the other stories that came with the ‘Cats winning their conference for the first time since 1990.

Instead, fans got this article from the Chicago Tribune, focused not on the team itself, but on the football players that attended their games. A team full of stories that deserved immense amounts of respect and recognition got it, but under the guise of a story about Northwestern football.

It’s not just the media that is guilty here, though. See these tweets from West Lot Pirates, a Northwestern sports podcast and Lake the Posts, one of the most well-known and respected voices in the Northwestern sports online community:

What do they all have in common? Yes, they give recognition to Olympic sports teams. But they almost caveat it, saying that they need the teams to distract them from football, comparing one program’s success to the lack of success of another. They’re talking about the Olympic sports, but the overarching message behind the tweets is the failure of football.

This makes the recognition almost disingenuous. Yes, we’re talking about the Olympic teams, but we’re just doing so to distract ourselves from football or compare the situation that the Olympic teams are in to that of football. The sentiment at the heart of these tweets isn’t support for Northwestern’s Olympic teams, but instead disappointment and frustration in the football team.

And I point this out not to knock any of the tweeters. In fact, I admire them from both a personal and fan perspective, seeing how passionate they are about Northwestern Athletics, the following they have gained and their knowledge of the Olympic sports programs. The sentiments that they are trying to convey, however, ones of support and fandom for field hockey and women’s basketball, would be communicated more effectively without the undertones of the woes of the football team.

So how do we move forward? For one, we can change the way we talk about Northwestern sports online. Personally, viewing my own timeline, I’ve seen a lot more people talking about the football team losing to Wisconsin than women’s basketball going 3-0 to start the season and field hockey winning two games in the NCAA Tournament. Social media is already a place that spreads so much negativity. Why not focus on the positive? Let’s celebrate the successes of the players and teams we love, doing so without needing a prompt or reason to distract ourselves, but simply because they’re awesome.

On the media side, there’s only so much that can be said about one football game. I know every media outlet is trying to compete for clicks, but no one wants to read multiple articles on Northwestern’s lack of a good quarterback. From a strategy standpoint, when all of the products are similar, wouldn’t it make sense that the one that is differentiated would be able to stand out amongst the competition? If I’m going to read three Northwestern articles and I have the choice of six on football and two on field hockey, there’s a decent chance that at least one of the articles I read will be a field hockey one. Both on a national level and from student journalists, there’s plenty to be done to increase the coverage of Northwestern’s Olympic teams.

Finally, and potentially most importantly, we can go to games. There’s not a ton to do in Evanston (or any of the Chicagoland suburbs, for that matter) in the winter. Why not go to a women’s basketball game on a Wednesday night? Want to spend some time in the sun while enjoying the lake? Lacrosse plays less than 100 feet away from Lake Michigan. Credit to Northwestern Athletics, these games are extremely fun to go to. They’re not the huge crowds of Ryan Field, but more intimate experiences. You not only get to feel more involved in the action, but also the in-game promotions and activations, which make going to a game an experience beyond the action on the field.

Northwestern’s Olympic sports are really good. It’s time we take them out of the shadow of football and men’s basketball and give them the respect they deserve.