CHICAGO — Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald testified for three hours Friday about a push by his players to form the nation’s first union for college athletes, sometimes putting himself awkwardly at odds with his senior quarterback.
Sporting a tie in team-color purple, Fitzgerald answered questions before the National Labor Relations Board, which must decide in coming weeks if the football players qualify as employees under U.S. law. If so, they have rights to unionize.
The decision is being closely watched across the country since a decision in favor of an athletes’ union could change the landscape of college athletics. The NCAA, Big Ten Conference and Northwestern all maintain that college athletes cannot be placed in the same category as factory workers, truck drivers or other employees in the traditional sense.
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Union supporters, however, say football generates millions of dollars in revenue and is a commercial enterprise reliant on laborers — the players.
Fitzgerald, a former star for Northwestern, said his program is about far more than football.
"We want (players) to be the best they can be … athletically, academically, socially … to be a champion in life," he said. He tells players, he said, that academics "is their priority."
Quarterback Kain Colter, who has exhausted his eligibility, painted a very different picture.
Testifying earlier this week for the proposed union, the newly formed College Athletes Players Association, Colter said a player’s performance on the field was more important to the school than their performance in class.
"You fulfill the football requirement and, if you can, you fit in academics," Colter said. He said he abandoned his own aspiration to take pre-med courses because of the enormous time demands of football.
Fitzgerald, however, said he’s known players who ended up going to medical school; he also cited his time juggling football and academics when he was an All-American linebacker at Northwestern in the 1990s.
"I had plenty of time to do both," he said.
Colter also said he couldn’t recall an instance where a coach ever told a player to leave practice and go study, but Fitzgerald said it does happen. He said there have even been instances when players who needed more study time were allowed to skip a game.
On Jan. 28, when Colter, CAPA and the United Steelworkers announced their intent to form the union, Fitzgerald tweeted that: "Kain and our student-athletes have followed their beliefs with great passion and courage. I’m incredibly proud of our young men!"
Union attorney Gary Kohlman suggested that Fitzgerald’s primary mission was to prepare his players to win games.
"I’m trying to teach them to be prepared for life," the coach responded. "Football is a part of that."
Asked by Kohlman if he got class credit for playing football when he was at Northwestern, Fitzgerald answered: "No. But I was getting unbelievable life experience."
Union attorneys suggested that the highly regimented structure of football at Northwestern, and the tight control of players’ daily lives, essentially make it a business, and the relationship of the school to the players was one of an employer to employee.
Fitzgerald acknowledged that a long list of rules applies to football players but not to other students. That includes drug tests and requirements that leases for off-campus housing be approved by the coaching staff.
Kohlman also walked through the time demands on players, singling out a day before and the day of an away game in 2012 against Michigan, which the Wildcats lost 38-31 in overtime.
While the players attended teams meetings and took a five-hour bus trip to Michigan, official NCAA logs on time the team spent on football that day was 1 hour, 8 minutes. After waking at 7:30 a.m. on game day, playing the game and returning to home after 10 p.m., the log said they spent three hours on football, Fitzgerald said.
The logs were done according to strict criteria set by the NCAA and no one accused Fitzgerald or the school of fudging the numbers.
Asked if Fitzgerald agreed that effort put into football by a player constituted a job, Fitzgerald hedged, saying, "It’s a full time job from a responsibility standpoint."
Colter has said that nearly all of the 85 scholarship players on the Wildcats roster back the union bid, though only he has expressed his support publicly.
While Fitzgerald clearly attempted to fortify the university’s position against the union, he never said directly on the stand that he opposed the establishment of a union. Outside the hearing, the designated president of the proposed union, former UCLA linebacker Ramogi Huma, said he thought Ftizgerald’s testimony as a whole helped the union position.
And, he didn’t think the pro-union players would hold a grudge against him.
"We told the players the university will disagree and (that Fitzgerald) is a part of the university," he said. "I don’t think any of the players will hold his testimony against him."