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Sporting: I Miss Northwestern Football’s Losing Tradition

The football team at my alma mater, Northwestern, is having a pretty good season. Once, that would have thrilled me. Now, it just makes me uneasy.

The first game I attended at N.U. was a doozy: The Wildcats beat Northern Illinois on Sept. 25, 1982, to break what remains the longest losing streak (34 games) in Division I-A history. My classmates streamed onto the field at Dyche Stadium to dismantle the goal posts in triumph and deposit them in Lake Michigan. The team went on to a losing season, though: It had been a long time since the days when the future Notre Dame legend Ara Parseghian was its relatively successful coach, and even longer since Northwestern had gone to the Rose Bowl.

We would have been delighted if the team had won more games (it didn’t have a winning season until 1995), but we consoled ourselves by taking a sort of perverse pride in our losses. As the Wildcats were being pounded by Big Ten opponents — especially our downstate rival, the University of Illinois — the N.U. students in the stands would chant, “That’s all right, that’s O.K., you’re going to work for us one day!” Obnoxious and classist, yes, but satisfying.

When I worked for the sports section of the campus newspaper, we’d dutifully write features about the hopes and dreams of the football players at the beginning of the season. Then, as the season rolled on, we would just as dutifully record their losses next to accounts of the exploits of the university’s real star athletes: the field hockey team.

And that was all right, that was O.K., because nobody went to Northwestern for its football prowess. I don’t recall ever meeting a fellow student who regretted taking a pass on Ohio State because the football there was better. If only a few of our players got jobs in the N.F.L., that was all right and O.K., too.

So it’s been disconcerting in recent years to see Northwestern be competitive in the Big Ten and regularly appear in bowl games. Right now, as The Times noted with bemusement last week, it leads its division, with a 5-1 conference record.

The school has invested plenty in the team; a couple of months ago an indoor practice field on prime lakefront property opened, part of a $270 million complex that Northwestern hopes will lure recruits and render practices more efficient — and make the team more competitive in a conference that has a lucrative television deal. It’s a commonplace for non-athletes to complain about too many resources being devoted to athletics, but colleges should spend money on sports for a lively campus and to promote students’ health.

And there’s the problem: Football’s not healthy.

So it’s been much more than disconcerting that my alma mater’s success, and its big investment in the sport, comes as we are being reminded every day of the price football players pay in traumatic brain injury. The rash of chronic traumatic encephalopathy among N.F.L. players has gotten the most attention, but college players are hurt, too. Some colleges, like Dartmouth, are trying ways to reduce these injuries by eliminating tackling in practice and taking other measures, but they remain outliers.

News of Northwestern’s triumphs now just serves as a reminder that there are real young men behind those wins whose brains are being battered. I want the Wildcats to win less so they won’t play as much.

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