Let’s start this thing off with a prediction that I’m fairly confident in:
Northwestern men's basketball is going to be very, very bad next year.
The ‘Cats have lost Pete Nance, the anchor that propelled them to much of the minimal success they experienced in 2022. Casey Simmons, arguably their best chance to replace Nance’s star power in the years to come, has reportedly entered the transfer portal. Ryan Young, their most reliable name off the bench, is gone, too. They’ve added no one that stands a chance to fill the gaps left behind by those players.
But from my perspective as a Northwestern sports fan, not much of my outlook for the upcoming academic year of play has changed. I’m still excited, optimistic and happy about the prospects of the purple and white in 2022-23.
That’s because, at the end of the day, I do not need Northwestern men’s basketball to be good — or even relevant — when I have Northwestern softball. Or Northwestern lacrosse. Or Northwestern field hockey.
Indeed, the success and potential of Northwestern’s women’s sports teams are more than I need to almost completely ignore the pitfalls of the more widely-covered, more invested-in men’s basketball program. Northwestern is, after all, indisputably a women’s sports school.
In a college sports landscape that values the success of schools’ revenue-generating programs — football and men’s basketball — over all else, that can seem like a radical statement to make. But looking at the standing of every Northwestern team, it would be dishonest to avoid the consistent prestige and the imminent promise of NU’s female athletes.
With the so-called “Michael Jordan of Hockey” — head coach Tracey Fuchs — at the helm and a roster filled with some of the world’s greatest players, Northwestern field hockey won a national title in the fall. Fuchs will have the opportunity to coach much of that same roster, including standouts Bente Baekers and Maddie Zimmer, once more later this year. Northwestern lacrosse made it to yet another Final Four in May, and while the ending was nothing short of heartbreaking, Kelly Amonte Hiller’s team will get its best player — Izzy Scane — back next year after she missed the entire 2022 campaign. Fresh off of an exhilarating run to the Women’s College World Series, Northwestern softball looks primed to run it back after the recently announced return of Danielle Williams, Jordyn Rudd, Skyler Shellmyer, Maeve Nelson and Nikki Cuchran.
These teams are some of the best — if not the very best — in the nation in their respective sports. At a school that has long been deprived of any sort of athletic success, you’d think that the accomplishments of these women in the last few decades and the potential they present for more sporting glory would be front and center.
Instead, the downfall of the Northwestern men’s basketball team — one that, if we’re all being honest with ourselves, was likely never making it to March Madness in 2023, even if Nance and Simmons had stuck around — has garnered more attention in Northwestern circles than the absolutely monumental news of the softball seniors’ return. That’s embarrassing for a fanbase like NU’s, which features so many individuals that pride themselves on standing for gender equity.
There is no rule saying that fans cannot revel in the success of one of their school’s teams and simultaneously wallow in the miserable failure of another. Holding Derrick Gragg and Northwestern administrators accountable if and when they fail to properly ensure that each NU team is set up for the maximum level of success is still important, and fans should continue to do so. But just think: how much more fun would being a Northwestern fan be if we all got our priorities in order?
Here’s another way of thinking about it: I grew up a Kansas men’s basketball fan. As a part of a community of Kansas fans, I was always aware that the terrible, no-good, completely god-awful Jayhawks football team garnered at least a little bit of attention in the fall. But it has always been evident that any concerns with the football program occupy much less real estate in collective headspace of Kansas fans than thoughts of joy surrounding the success of the men’s basketball team. Kansas is decidedly a basketball school and decidedly not a football school, so no one cares to emphasize the latter over the former.
Compare that to the situation here in Evanston. Eight team national championships and countless conference titles suggest that Northwestern is a women’s sports school — in this moment, namely a lacrosse, field hockey and softball school. Meanwhile, a history with only a single NCAA Tournament appearance and without an All-American since the turn of the millennium tells us that Northwestern is not a men’s basketball school.
Why is it, then, that the Northwestern Athletics community — from the department itself, to the publications that cover NU teams, to the fans that fill the stands — collectively invests more resources, time and energy in men’s basketball than it does in softball, lacrosse and field hockey combined? The easy answer is that men’s basketball is a revenue-generating sport, but that would only stop being the case if NU was booted from the Big Ten entirely and lost the lucrative television revenue-sharing payouts that come with conference membership. That seems about as likely as Chris Collins hoisting the national championship trophy on April 3, 2023.
Another common response to this question is that fans are more generally familiar with basketball than they are with softball, lacrosse and field hockey. First, if you are already a baseball fan, you will understand softball, so that’s not much of an excuse on that front. More importantly, if fans are interested in these teams due to their connection to the school (as is the case for much of NU’s fanbase), then you would think that they would teach themselves enough about the sports that the school is best at to enjoy them, rather than ignore these teams and, in doing so, deprive themselves of the joy they spark.
The darker answer, then, is that Northwestern fans have fallen in line with a patriarchal society that suggests women’s sports cannot be just as fun and interesting to watch as men’s sports. When Title IX was signed 50 years ago, it was designed to present female athletes at American schools with the same opportunities to play sports as their male counterparts. But until we as a society accept that women’s sports are as worthy of our time, attention and resources as men’s sports, elite female athletes will still be deprived of true equality. If a fanbase and school as progressive as Northwestern’s cannot bring that change to life, who can?
It will take an intentional effort on the part of everyone — including us here at Inside NU — to make it happen, but it’s possible that we can give our women’s teams the love and attention that they’ve earned through their stellar play. This doesn’t mean abandoning the men’s teams that have, in many cases, been the gateway drug into an infatuation with Northwestern sports. But just as it would be insane and irrational for a Kansas fan to care less about men’s basketball than they do about football, it would be nuts for a true Northwestern fan to invest more energy in men’s basketball than they do in NU’s elite women’s teams.
Almost half a century into their existence, we are living in a golden era of Northwestern women’s sports. Let’s show up for these Wildcats and support them as they reach new heights and bring pride to the school that binds us all together.