A Gentleman Among Jocks

“Only at Northwestern?” we said to Fred Hemke.

“Only at Northwestern,” he agreed. “That’s exactly how it all came about.”

Hemke was explaining how a prominent NU saxophonist such as himself wound up the man in charge of the Big Ten athletic conference’s search for a new commissioner. He said that the president of NU in 1981, Robert Strotz, appointed him faculty representative to the conference in the conviction “that if there was going to be any control of varsity athletics, it should be maintained by someone as far away from athletics as possible.”

Hemke is chairman of NU’s wind and percussion instruments department.

“The association is hardly ever made between music and athletics,” Hemke went on. “You could conceivably make it between business school and athletics or social sciences and athletics. But I think here at Northwestern the president looked for as remote a distinction as he could make. There was music at one end of the campus and athletics at the other, both in philosophy and reality.”

We asked if musical appreciation on the part of many of his Big Ten associates begins and ends with marching bands.

“Pretty much so,” Hemke said. “There are some exceptions, to be sure. Certainly with the faculty, you have people who are operagoers and symphonygoers. But for many of them, it is limited to what they see on the football field at halftime.”

Hemke explained that the Big Ten is administered by the Joint Group, which consists of athletic directors, women’s athletic administrators, and faculty reps from each school. A senior member of the Joint Group, Hemke chairs the management review and finance committee, whose responsibilities for personnel made him the logical head of the search committee now seeking a successor to Big Ten commissioner Wayne Duke, who retires next year. Hemke does not expect any serious candidate to balk at interrogation by a saxophonist.

We observed that the sax is one of those instruments that men’s men are under no special obligation to disdain. Right, said Hemke, and he means to help his Big Ten colleagues appreciate it even more. “Doug Weaver, the athletic director at Michigan State, plays the guitar and banjo,” Hemke mentioned. “There’s a little ensemble at halftimes–he’s been known to come down and get his banjo and sit in with those guys. I’ve converted him to the saxophone and he’s been learning to play it.

“This may not be a part of my job, but any number of times I’ve brought over groups from Northwestern, not just saxophones,” Hemke told us. “I’ve brought over vocal groups for our meetings, brought over the jazz lab band and tried to give them a little bit of the other side of things. And I think they enjoy it.”

Having gotten to know both athletic directors and coaches, Hemke drew a distinction between them. “The coaches don’t have an overall perception of the entire program, nor do they have a perception of the educational mission of the university,” he said. “I think the athletic directors do.” He hastened to add that there are exceptions, and that exceptions are the rule at Northwestern. Coaches like Francis Peay and Bill Foster knew what they were getting themselves into.

But generally, “you have coaches in my mind who are so narrow in their vision it becomes their team and their effort only and everything else [at the university] becomes secondary.”

The ADs, on the other hand, “are not out to get anybody. They’re looking out for the best interests of their programs and institutions. They cooperate amazingly well.”

Hemke likes these men. He likes them a lot. “They’re very human, down to earth, nonesoteric kinds of people,” he said. “They’re a joy to work with. They’re upfront people who let you know what they’re about right to your face, and that’s very refreshing.”

Not necessarily like all academics? we wondered.

“I said it was refreshing,” Hemke stated. “That does speak for itself.”

Strike Tactics

The Monday morning before Thanksgiving, Chuck Price, acting publisher of the Sun-Times, received a phone call from U.S. Congressman Charles Hayes. The Guild’s strike deadline was 2:30 that afternoon, and Price was under the gun.

Hayes tells us, “I introduced myself and told him I had a constituency interest because a lot of people in, my district read the newspaper–the Sun-Times seemed to be the one they looked at most.” Hayes says they chatted a bit about the negotiations. “He told me the main things that kept them apart seemed to be money and some understanding on the part of affirmative action. So I said, ‘I’m not trying to tell you how to do it but I’m available to help you resolve the situation.'”

Hayes did not call Price on some stray do-gooder impulse. He’d been put up to it by Tracey Robinson, a black reporter and member of the Guild negotiating team. Looking to strengthen its hand, the Guild had calculated that the company’s unwillingness (stretching back several years) to establish a serious affirmative action program could be parlayed into the threat of a boycott by black readers. Hayes, who had been a labor leader himself before taking over Harold Washington’s south-side congressional seat, was a logical ally. Another call that morning was made to Operation PUSH.

Hayes didn’t say a word to Price about any boycott. A spokesman for the Sun-Times management goes so far as to insist, contrary to Hayes’s own recollection, that the subject of affirmative action never even came up. Still, the point was hard to miss. Later Monday, we’re told, company negotiators asked the Guild team if minority hiring was being kept on the table as a weapon to use against management, and reminded them that a black boycott could destroy both the paper and the Guild.

Monday afternoon, the company made a “final offer” that the Guild team agreed to present to the membership. It wasn’t much: a first-year pay freeze followed by 3 percent hikes the next two years. But this clearly was a year in which any major gains would be noneconomic. The Guild team asked Chuck Dale, the international president of the Newspaper Guild, who’d come into Chicago the day before, to call the company’s chief negotiator, Vic Strimbu (Dale and Strimbu had known each other for years) and offer a deal. If the company threw in an affirmative action program whose goal was a staff reflecting the minority makeup of Cook County, the Guild negotiators would unanimously endorse the company offer.

But Dale garbled the message. Up to now, the Guild had been talking about a staff proportional to the minority makeup of the city of Chicago! Dale failed to make Strimbu understand that the Guild was now asking for something considerably more modest, and Strimbu turned down the deal. So the negotiating team declined to line up behind the “final offer” and the membership rejected it. The Guild negotiators were ordered back to the table to do better.

The next day Vic Strimbu sent the Guild team a three-part affirmative action proposal he’d written himself. It was astonishingly fine, prompting the Guild negotiators to recall that back in Cleveland, where he practices law, Strimbu (whom we’d grown accustomed to hearing described in villainous terms) had helped create a minority program at the Plain Dealer that’s been a model for the industry. The company made concessions in several other areas as well. Dale’s confusion had led to a clearly superior contract.

Tracey Robinson tells us that today’s editorial staff at the Sun-Times is only 13 percent minority. There are just seven black reporters and one Hispanic and the managerial ranks are even thinner. The new contract pledges the Sun-Times to the newsroom goals of the American Society of Newspaper Editors–that is, to a minimum of 20 to 25 percent minority employment by the turn of the century. The promotion process will be overhauled, a minority scholarship will be established, and there will be some sort of workshop program in the high schools. A new committee composed of Guild and management equally will oversee the new initiatives.

It sounds a little toothless, we told Tracey Robinson. “The genie’s out of the bottle,” she said. “They’re watching it”–she meant PUSH and Charles Hayes–“and if nothing’s done we have their support and we’ll be knocking on their door.”

In the heat of combat, the Guild sent out a letter to freelancers who contribute to the Sun-Times. Beware of taking a job with the paper if we strike, said the letter, because the strike will end. Any editorial person the Sun-Times hires must join the union and “obviously, the Guild could not consider for membership any person who crossed a Chicago Newspaper Guild picket line during a strike by its members.” Scabs might also find themselves blackballed by the Guild “at any other Guild-covered newspaper or magazine in this Country or in Canada.”

All’s fair, apparently, in love, war, and labor negotiations. Technically, the Guild letter is true, but it is calculatedly misleading. The Guild cannot keep the Sun-Times or other papers from hiring anyone they choose, and as long as the new employees pay their initiation fees and union dues they are legally entitled to their jobs.

“It is too bad,” wrote director of labor relations Brian Fantl in his own follow-up letter to free-lancers, “that the Guild has chosen to pursue its bargaining demands by resorting to illegal threats and accusations.” The paper filed an unfair-labor-practice charge against the Guild, a charge we expect will be withdrawn in the name of intramural peace.

We asked a Guild representative about the letter, which was composed years ago and is dusted off whenever a contract is up. “It was carefully worded to state the actions that could and would be taken under the Guild constitution,” this representative said. “The Guild constitution, of course, is not the preeminent document in this country. The Constitution is.”

When a labor contract is on the line, leadership seems to require some finesse at manipulating people’s emotions. “You tread a very narrow line,” reflected the Guild rep. “You have to marshal all the strength you can get in the unit. You have to get the people to support what are really unrealistic and unattainable goals and get them to believe in them sufficiently to strike over them. And when as a natural part of the negotiating process you have to compromise, it’s a real letdown.”

Hope in the hearts of your own battalions; fear in the hearts of all real or potential foes. But slanting facts for any reason is singularly unsuited to journalists. That letter should go.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.