Northwestern bad example for union push

February, 18, 2014
Feb 18
5:30
PM CT
The College Athletes Players Association needed a dynamic leader and a willing football team to make a historic push for unionization in the sport.

The CAPA found both in Kain Colter and the Northwestern Wildcats. Colter is an intelligent, polished spokesman -- not to mention a really good player -- who has never been afraid to speak his mind. The CAPA thinks the Northwestern players add credibility because of their 97 percent graduation rate.

The argument: If Northwestern players are being treated unfairly, imagine what's going on at other places.

But Northwestern, while being the willing choice, is the wrong choice for this campaign.

"Frankly, Northwestern has a great deal of difficulty understanding why it was chosen as a test case," university attorney Alex Barbour said Tuesday during a National Labor Relations Board hearing in Chicago. "The reality is that Northwestern is not a football factory. It is first and foremost a premier academic institution."

Although Northwestern employs some of the same restrictions as programs that could fall under the "football factory" label, no one can intelligently dispute Barbour's point. Anyone who has spent time around Northwestern's program, as I have, understands that the program cares a lot about its players and creates much of its structure with them in mind.

On Tuesday, Colter testified about the restrictions/control Northwestern placed on him and other football players. He painted a very different picture of a program celebrated by many for the way it operates.

According to Colter:

  • Morning practices prevent players from taking classes before 11 a.m. They also can't take eight-week summer courses because they conflict with the team's off-site training every August in Kenosha, Wis.
  • Players must attend mandatory training table, which comes out of their stipend checks.
  • Players are advised not to take certain classes that conflict with football responsibilities. Colter was steered away from taking chemistry and, in his view, a pre-med degree because of football.
  • Although the team has a leadership council, on which Colter served, to discuss team-related issues, coach Pat Fitzgerald has the final say (51 percent of the vote). Colter added that the leadership council didn't help develop his leadership skills and that he had to be coaxed into participating. Ouch.
  • Players must gain permission from their position coaches and disclose travel information before flying home.
  • Strength and conditioning staff monitor all in-season and out-of-season workouts, creating a team (i.e., employer) presence.
  • Northwestern is covering only a portion of the cost for Colter's recent ankle surgery. The rest is currently in dispute.

It was a day of heavy scrutiny for a program that prides itself -- and is viewed -- as doing things the right way.

I agree with much of what the CAPA wants for football players, particularly long-term medical coverage. Northwestern should pay all of Colter's ankle surgery costs because he incurred the injury while playing for the Wildcats. The school should also do something for former wide receiver Jeff Yarbrough, who can't afford medical procedures to ease pain stemming from football injuries.

The value of athletic scholarships should be significantly enhanced -- the Big Ten has long pushed for this -- and athletes should have a seat at the table for many of the important decisions that affect them.

Should football players be employees? My answer is no, in large part because walk-ons and athletes from other sports are excluded from this push. But I understand arguments on the other side.

[+] EnlargeRamogi Huma, Kain Colter, Tim Waters, Leo W. Gerard
Matt Marton/USA TODAY SportsKain Colter (center) compared his football experience to that of Navy SEALs, but has also noted he wouldn't have gotten into Northwestern without football.
The bottom line: It's hard to buy Northwestern as ground zero for this movement. Sure, Wildcats players have to make sacrifices and don't have the same college experiences as many of their classmates. But they also receive tremendous benefits, from the ridiculously expensive education to prime job connections in Chicago and elsewhere. Colter interned at Goldman Sachs last summer.

Fitzgerald moved practices to the morning in large part because of academics, as most classes are offered after 11 a.m. More than once, I've been unable to interview a player after practice because he has left for a class.

I spent a week with Northwestern leading up to its Oct. 5 game against Ohio State. The large majority of team activities were completed before 10:30 a.m. Did players put in a lot of hours? Sure. But they had time for school. The academic numbers back it up.

Colter said he wouldn't have been admitted to Northwestern if not for football. That's called an opportunity, one he has maximized, to his credit, earning a 3.2 GPA. The system largely worked in his favor, even if he made it sound like it didn't.

He lost a lot of people with his Navy SEALs/football comparison. He lost me a lot earlier.

If you want a more balanced view of the Northwestern football experience, check out the Twitter timeline of former linebacker Nate Williams.

It's just hard to feel sorry for Northwestern players. They get a pretty good deal at a program that emphasizes academics and doesn't try to win at all costs. Maybe the reality isn't as sunny as the narrative Fitzgerald sells, but it's not too far off.

There are better examples of the restrictions/injustices college football players face and there are plenty of football factories around the country.

Colter is an impressive spokesman who had the courage to speak out, even if he has damaged his relationship with the program.

But it's too bad the real factory workers in college football aren't the ones trying to form a union.

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