Nearly two years ago, quarterback Kain Colter began trying to unionize the Northwestern football team. This week, the long legal saga ended when the National Labor Relations Board ruled against the bid. The process was filled with confusion, mischaracterizations and hurt feelings. I was a junior at Northwestern when Colter's campaign began. Here's an overview that hopefully brings some clarity and context to a complex story:
On Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013, I rolled out of bed, chugged a cup of coffee, shaved and jumped on the shuttle to Ryan Field. Northwestern was in the midst of the most exciting two-week period in Evanston since the 1996 Rose Bowl. The Wildcats were coming off a 10-win season, including a victory in the Gator Bowl against Mississippi State. They opened this season 4-0. The Oct. 5 homecoming game against Ohio State was selected for ABC primetime coverage. ESPN's College GameDay followed suit shortly thereafter, announcing its first trip to Evanston since 1995.
Kain Colter was the face of Northwestern at the time. He was in his second year as "Quarterback 1A" of head coach Pat Fitzgerald's two-QB system, but there was no denying he was the most dynamic player on the team. As a junior, he had 894 rushing yards, 872 passing yards and 169 receiving yards.
During Colter's media availability this day, Teddy Greenstein of the Chicago Tribune immediately asked the quarterback about the All Players United (APU) wristband he wore during the Wildcats' 35-21 win against Maine the previous weekend. I had seen a couple tweets about Colter's wristband over the weekend but had to scramble on my phone to figure out what Greenstein was talking about. Here is how I know I shaved that morning:
I wrote about Colter's APU chat in my practice notes for the now-retired Northwestern blog Lake The Posts. In it, Colter said of APU: "It's a group that I started getting involved with in early summer Basically every week, we have a conference call with players from around the nation representing a bunch of different conferences, different schools. The leader of that is Ramogi Huma, who played at UCLA."
It all seemed pretty innocent at the time. Huma was a good guy from UCLA who was just trying to help some college kids fight for rights that he did not get as a college player. Colter also talked about injuries that day as he suffered his share the past two years.
"There needs to be a guarantee that players aren’t stuck with medical bills after they leave with long-lasting injuries that they suffer from football," he said.
During Colter's Northwestern career, Fitzgerald referred to him as a "son" on multiple occasions. But on this day we saw the first major rift between them.
"I told him I was disappointed in him, not that he believes in the cause and not that he was taking a role in that but … what we try to do collectively is team focused," Fitz said.
Later, he added: "I'm fully in support of what he’s doing. I would just like it to be within the team structure."
Fitzgerald, a two-time national defensive player of the year as a Northwestern linebacker in the mid-90s, was right. Colter was not thinking about the team.
"This is bigger than Northwestern,” Colter said. “I love Northwestern, and I love my experience. I feel like people are making it me vs. Northwestern, us vs. the institution. It’s not that at all. It’s players coming together for a better cause."
Colter, Fitzgerald and Northwestern did not formally address APU to the media the rest of the season. On the day of the big Ohio State showdown, Colter was featured in a College GameDay piece on academics at Northwestern and Stanford:
Then against the No. 4 Buckeyes, Colter threw for 98 yards and had both a rushing and receiving touchdown. His questionable late fumble effectively ended Northwestern's shot at a near upset. The Buckeyes won 40-30 with a meaningless (except to gamblers) touchdown on the final play.
Northwestern lost the next six games. Critics will say Colter's APU nonsense put Northwestern in a downward spiral. But considering two losses came in overtime and one on a final-second Hail Mary, it could've been just bad luck. Colter suffered an upper-body injury on Senior Day, the second-to-last game of the season, and he was out for the finale, a win over Illinois.
Fast-forward to Jan. 28, 2014, when the College Athletes Players Association held its inaugural press conference at the Hyatt Regency Chicago. I always found that date to be a peculiar choice because it fell on Super Bowl XLVIII Media Day. Nearly all of the national sports media were in New York City while Colter and his new companions, CAPA President Huma, United Steelworkers President Leo W. Gerard and union national political director, Tim Waters, met with local and regional reporters.
It's just 15 miles between campus and the Hyatt, but I immediately felt like it was different world. We're not in Evanston anymore, Toto. Colter was decked out in a suit, not the familiar Northwestern Under Armour gear I was used to seeing him wear for interviews.
But he still expressed the same views he did in the APU conversation four months earlier.
"The NFL has the NFLPA, the NBA has the NBAPA and now college athletes have the College Athletes Players Association," he said.
With the national spotlight on him, Colter was not wagging his finger at the lack of pay-for-play. His motives were always about injury insurance and the representation of players, and he reiterated this at the press conference.
When he talked about the difficulties in balancing certain majors with football and the long practice hours that make it like more of a job than a school activity, Colter may have stretched the truth a bit.
I was around Northwestern football for four years, and I heard and saw some of what goes on at other programs. Northwestern caters to its football players and one could even argue that it babies them. Athletes pick classes before seniors, get provided with inordinate amounts of food and have paid employees available for injury, academic and mental health help. If a player has a class at 10 a.m. and practice ends at 9:30 a.m., that player is excused from having to do media interviews, so he can go to class.
As a broadcaster for the student radio station, WNUR, I made two plane trips with the team. Each time, I felt like I was being fed three meals in a one-hour flight as we got the same complimentary treatment as the players. Those two charters to Lincoln and Minneapolis are the most satisfying flights I have ever been on.
But talk to Fitzgerald for five minutes and he will educate you on how Northwestern football "prepares young men for life." The most recent Academic Progress Report program honored 15 of 19 Northwestern athletic teams with football being one of them.
Northwestern has it good. Hard to argue otherwise. If there was one mistake Huma made when putting his eggs in the Kain Colter basket, it was that Northwestern was the wrong place to pick a fight. Read the NLRB report for the details. Sometimes, Northwestern has freaking nap time!
Here is how ESPN.com Big Ten reporter (and Northwestern alum) Adam Rittenberg described the situation :
"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."
In the suburbs, Fitzgerald and athletic director Jim Phillips still were not sure what was going on. They saw their quarterback heralded as a leader in the media and tossed him rather upbeat responses.
Kain and our student-athletes have followed their beliefs with great passion and courage. I'm incredibly proud of our young men! GO CATS!
— Pat Fitzgerald (@coachfitz51) January 28, 2014
Phillips said in a statement:
"We love and are proud of our students. Northwestern teaches them to be leaders and independent thinkers who will make a positive impact on their communities, the nation and the world. Today's action demonstrates that they are doing so.
"We are pleased to note that the Northwestern students involved in this effort emphasized that they are not unhappy with the University, the football program or their treatment here, but are raising the concerns because of the importance of these issues nationally."
Northwestern is highly competitive. Computer science majors think they will create the next Facebook, and engineers think they are going to Mars. In the case of unionization, Kain Colter thought he was creating the first form of college athletes' representation.
But his initiative alarmed many alumni. They saw Colter and the team's signing of the union cards as a spoiled mindset. They saw players taking for granted the golden opportunity to play Big Ten football and study at a world-class university. Most important, they saw the entire scenario as a means of giving Northwestern negative publicity.
After the press conference, my first thought was who is next? When Colter put on his APU wristband in September against Maine, players at Georgia and George Tech wore them the same day. Colter was now going into this alone and Northwestern was the only jersey on the table. And as we learned as the story developed, the unionization effort was only for private schools like Northwestern. Public universities were exempt.
In February 2014, as CAPA and Northwestern prepared to go to battle in front of the National Labor Relations Board, from my room I could hear university administrators groaning. Everyone -- administrators, coaches, players, even Colter -- knew Northwestern treated its players with more respect than nearly every school in the country. Everyone also understood the leverage that Colter had and he was capitalizing on the growing general vibe that college players are mistreated. Northwestern had to prepare arguments for a case it felt was a waste of time.
ESPN legal analyst Lester Munson wrote in anticipation of the Chicago NLRB hearing: "The university will suggest that the issues raised by the players are being discussed 'at the national level' and are 'outside the purview of Northwestern.'"
Huma, of course, pushed the bigger picture, telling CNN during the hearing: "These guys at Northwestern are really an inspiration, not just to other football and basketball players and athletes, but these are young men standing together, 70 to 80 guys and they're taking on a multibillion industry because they know it's the right thing to do."
I understand why Huma went about it this way and I understand what he wanted. But that comment is bull.
— CollegeAthletesPA (@CAPAssociation) April 3, 2014
Kain Colter got a bunch of his teammates to sign cards the same way the middle school student council president has everyone sign his or her campaign petition in the cafeteria. It seemed like the right thing to do. Toss Kain a bone. It's something he is passionate about and it'll make us look good. It probably will not amount to anything.
This was not 70 to 80 guys standing together fighting the university, much less a multibillion industry. It was Colter, who took Northwestern Professor Nick Dorzweiler's "Field Studies in the Modern Workplace" class and felt empowered to fight for change in college football.
Casting the storyline as Northwestern players taking it to "The Man" changed the vibe -- and it was wrong.
Fitzgerald had to testify against CAPA, which only widened the divide. The coach was bulletproof, as he is one of the rare Division I coaches who had virtually nothing to hide in such a hearing. But one challenging question CAPA lawyer Gary Kohlman gave him was about a Chicago Sun-Times article that quoted Fitz as saying being a student-athlete is a "full-time job."
Fitzgerald fended this off by saying, "It's a full-time job from a responsibility standpoint."
The same day Fitzgerald testified, then-rising senior Northwestern captain Brandon Vitabile was the first player other than Colter to give a statement since the union cards were signed:
"Northwestern University, specifically the athletics department and the football program, has given us every opportunity within their power to succeed, not only on the field, but in the classroom and after graduation. We could not be happier, nor could we ask for more from our staff, coaches, and administrators. They have always acted with our best interests in mind. We firmly believe that Northwestern University is one of the best places in the country to earn an education and compete as an elite athlete."
While Huma and Colter probably cringed, the remaining players on the roster saw their little protest blow out of proportion. They began to express their true colors and loyalty to their coach as opposed to the soon-to-be-graduating Colter.
On Feb. 26, 2014, I sounded off about the misconception that the union debate was about the players versus Northwestern. The argument needed to be about CAPA versus the NCAA:
This is not about Northwestern. This is about Colter and his Northwestern teammates coming together as leaders for an NCAA revolution. Colter is trying to be the catalyst for change across the entire NCAA system. He is the right spokesman for CAPA based on his intelligence, leadership and injury history. Northwestern is not the right example of an unjust football program.
I am perhaps most shocked at the rest of the NCAA's failure to jump on Colter's bandwagon. CAPA's argument will be ignited when another NCAA program or player jumps on Colter's side. Considering CAPA is the strongest organization to sprout in fighting for college players' rights, I scratch my head over the lack of support.
The whole thing seemed like one big show. Both sides knew the relationship between Northwestern and its players was favorable, but Colter had to make his point and the school had to show him respect. As SB Nation's Rodger Sherman (and founder of the Northwestern blog Sippin' On Purple) wrote on that same day, neither Kain Colter nor Pat Fitzgerald was the villain.
Having 18- to 23-year-olds run around all week, bashing heads and spending their weekends on national television without representation is skeptical, despite the scholarship money and education. When Chicago NLRB regional director Peter Sung Ohr ruled in March 2014 that Wildcat football players qualify as employees of the university and can unionize, I saw the decision as a greater annoyance to Northwestern, but confirmation that other schools could join.
But it will not be long before unionization is not just viewed as a Players vs. Northwestern issue.
The floodgates are open and the tide has only led to success thus far. Players have dipped their feet in. Now, the water is safe to swim in."
But no one joined in after Colter. While the legal conversation shifted to Washington D.C. at the big-boy NLRB, Northwestern hosted the union vote on April 25. By this time, Vitabile's statement foreshadowed the vote. As numerous outlets reported around that day, the general vibe was that themajority of players would vote against the union. With Colter out the door, no players were willing to step up and take his place. The team has its leaders but none felt strongly enough about Colter's cause to challenge the athletic department and the university.
The public will never know the outcome of the vote, but there is not a soul on the football team who thinks it would have passed.
My favorite part of this whole story is that in April, the same month as the vote, Northwestern put a picture of Colter on its "Become A Tour Guide" poster. How could anyone in the university administration see and not realize this was a bad idea? It proves Colter was the right person for the job at the wrong school. He was called "every publicist's dream" the day before he put on the APU wristband for the first time. He even modeled at Northwestern.
Kain Colter is on the student profile picture for tour guide apps. How long until an NU administrator notices it? pic.twitter.com/IeDd6XoxKZ
— Jeffrey Eisenband (@JeffEisenband) April 3, 2014
After the vote, Colter signed with the Vikings as an undrafted free agent. While preparing for NFL life, he also appeared on The Daily Show to make his case. Although Colter dons his purple Northwestern uniform (with the Gator Bowl patch from the 2012 season), not once does he ever specifically mention challenging Northwestern. His whole argument is about college football players in general.
Colter went to Vikings training camp and spent the season on the team's practice squad. An employee for the first time, Colter spent the year fighting to maintain a paycheck.
In the meantime, Northwestern football went on with unionization in the background. The players knew they had voted a union down and focused on football. There was no direct talk of unionization on the Northwestern beat in the fall, as the team went 5-7 for the second consecutive year (probably more due to the lack of Colter's dynamic skills in the offense than distraction from unionization).
On Monday, the cloud was finally cleared from Northwestern and its players. With the union being shot down, Northwestern is no longer attached to CAPA's fight, and the union vote will never be revealed.
Fitzgerald could go back to being his players' biggest fan:
"Our young men chose to attend Northwestern to compete on the field at the highest level, earn a world-class education and prepare for the rest of their lives," he said in a statement. "They have displayed maturity beyond their years through this process, and the experience has unquestionably brought us closer together as a football family. This group posted the highest cumulative GPA in program history during the 2014-15 academic year, earned a record 38 Academic All-Big Ten honors last season and is excited to return to the field this fall to play the game they love and compete for a Big Ten championship."
The fight for college athletes' rights is far from over. It is important to recognize CAPA, with its focus on giving players a voice and protecting injuries -- not pay-for-play -- is a well-intentioned organization.
The air has thickened since Colter wore that APU wristband back in September 2013. Back then, the natural reaction was to deem the idea of a college athletes' union ludicrous. Two years later, the support for college players has increased. The improving of college athletes lives, as employees or not, is inevitable. A union at Northwestern just wasn't the best example.
Colter told Rohan Nadkarni in a tremendous piece for Deadspin that his relationship with his alma mater was virtually destroyed the past two years. But he added, "I like to think time heals all."
I got both positive and negative reviews when I sent out this tweet Tuesday evening:
I say make Kain Colter honorary captain for homecoming. Alumni would cringe, but it would make such a statement.
— Jeffrey Eisenband (@JeffEisenband) August 19, 2015
ESPN's Darren Rovell, a Northwestern alum, was among those who disagreed:
— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) August 19, 2015
In my mind, Colter, Fitz, the players, Northwestern administrators, everyone has been putting on an actor's mask in this entire process. Colter realizes the lucky opportunity he had playing football and studying at Northwestern. The Northwestern side should understand Colter was trying to fight for all college players and not attack his school. It so happened that the way he went about it was really darn annoying for Northwestern's budget on lawyers.
Both sides can repair both their images by coming together. If Northwestern accepts Colter, it will show the administration is respecting Colter's voice. If Colter, who was waived by the Vikings in May, wants to actually continue with CAPA's push, and reconnect with his university, getting Northwestern onboard is likely to his benefit. Northwestern is progressive but it could not afford to be the only school to get pushed around by the unionization movement, and that is why it had to crush CAPA's efforts.
I am proud to be part of a university community that had the guts to go through both sides of this. However, both sides handled the debate immaturely at points and never shifted the conversation toward its main focus. CAPA felt the only way to make progress was for Colter to point out the flaws in Northwestern and try to win in court. This flowery argument was never going to hold up. Now, if he got a few players from other schools to help him go against the NCAA ... that would be a totally different game.
Huma and CAPA will rise again. They will probably mix public and private schools and programs with different backgrounds and histories. It will likely take an approach that isn't explicitly about a union so it can include public universities.
Colter, using Northwestern as his foil, made progress for the players, and he had the brain and charisma for activism. He just went to a school that treated him too darn well.
-- Follow Jeffrey Eisenband on Twitter @JeffEisenband.