Let me preface by saying I have covered Northwestern football and Kain Colter for three seasons. I was there when Colter wore an APU wristband in September. I was there when Colter held his initial CAPA press conference.
I have followed the NLRB hearings for the past week, and have seen the case turn into something it is not: A battle between Kain Colter and Northwestern.
The way the arguments must be framed within the judicial terminology has certainly given that impression.
But as was the case in the Paul Newman classic Absence Of Malice, something can be not true and still be accurate.
Colter expected the story to unfold this way, even as he was making the point that the issue was not a gripe against his school.
“This is bigger than Northwestern,” he said at his Jan. 28 press conference announcing the birth of the College Athletics Protection Association (CAPA). "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."
Later that day, I wrote about why Colter is the right man to lead the unionization fight for NCAA athletes. I did not say Colter is right to lead a critique of the Northwestern University administration. This is because he is not.
For Colter to gain any legal traction, though, he is forced to make indictments against his university and his football program.
He is forced to say things like, "Everything we do is scheduled around football," and "Football makes it hard to succeed (academically)." He must call out the university for an excessive commitment of 50-60 hours per week during the summer and 40-50 per week during the season. He needs to condemn Northwestern for controlling his class schedule based on practice times.
The university must contest. Legally, it will refuse to admit these factors create such hardships that Northwestern football players can be considered "employees."
Northwestern attorneys must say CAPA's push for unionization is "arbitrary" and "[Northwestern] is first and foremost a premier academic institution." Northwestern can trot out the long list of its athletes who have had successful post-football career. Northwestern needs to describe the tutoring options athletes have at the "world-class institution."
Northwestern is not the model to start the unionization movement. Adam Rittenberg, an NU graduate and ESPN.com Big Ten reporter, put it best:
"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."
I have seen football players devouring loaded plates of food after practice and games. I have seen the free Under Armour gear Northwestern players wear. I have seen Northwestern players in both high-level and low-level academic classes (Colter was in my Introduction to Judaism lecture two years ago) and know athletes get early preference in picking classes. I have traveled on the team charter plane as a student radio broadcaster. Life as a Northwestern football player ain't too shabby.
Perhaps the most interesting testimony came last Friday from head football coach Pat Fitzgerald on Feb. 21. Fitzgerald, a two-time National Defensive Player of the Year at NU (1995 and 1996 winner of Bronko Nagurski Trophy and Chuck Bednarik Award), was forced to defend his coaching tactics.
Fitzgerald refused to recognize college football as a job, and he insisted football does not get in the way of any particular major at Northwestern.
It is important to remember after Colter wore an APU wristband in September, Fitzgerald said, “I’m fully in support of what he’s doing. I would just like it to be within the team structure. I have nothing but the utmost respect for him as a person, for him as a student and obviously him as a player. I have been pretty steadfast in my comments believing what's best for the student-athletes. I believe in our guys, I believe in what they support."
It is important to remember this is what Fitzgerald tweeted after Colter's Jan. 28 press conference:
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
I have seen Colter and Fitzgerald embrace. I have listened to Fitzgerald praise Colter as a player, a leader and a student.
Of course Fitzgerald is going to defend the university that pays his bills. As bystanders, we must decide what to believe: the tweet or the testimony.
The same day Fitzgerald made his testimony, Northwestern junior center Brandon Vitabile released a statement to the Chicago Tribune on behalf of the NU players, saying:
“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.”
Less than a month ago, Colter said an "overwhelming majority" of Northwestern players signed cards supporting CAPA. What should we believe? Colter's uncontested Jan. 28 accusation or Vitabile's scripted statement moments after his coach testified. Pat Fitzgerald just testified against an "overwhelming majority" of his team and no one seems to care. That is because both sides are putting on two faces.
To put it bluntly, the course of the NLRB hearings is bull. Every time a national journalist breaks down the legal side of the hearings, I chuckle. Every time I read an alum lash out against players on a message board, I shake my head. Every time I see a former player blast Colter on Twitter, I sigh.
This is not about Kain Colter vs. Northwestern. Let's not turn it into that. Let's not feed the legal beast.
Less than a month ago, Kain Colter was celebrated by his coach, former and present student-athletes, columnists and fellow students. He talked about giving NCAA football players that "voice" and reiterated his main point since September: to attain an insurance-type fund to use for health reasons after their careers.
Eventually, Colter had to go into a courtroom and give his testimony. The only way for him to get legal change is to attack his university. Every time an article is written about Northwestern not being the "right" place to start the unionization argument, in the simplest way, I think, "Duh." I would not be surprised if Colter thinks the same way.
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.
It is no secret players on Georgia and Georgia Tech wore APU wristbands the same September weekend as Colter. Where are these players now?
I can only conclude other programs are waiting on the verdict of the Northwestern hearings to decide how to maneuver their pieces. For those NCAA players who want change, open your eyes: Colter and CAPA are losing ground and need you right now.
At Syracuse, Jim Boeheim is split on Colter and CAPA's motivations. He refuses to accept athletes as "employees," but he doesn't disagree with their motivations to get more benefits. Boeheim openly admits a Syracuse scholarship, which he says is worth about $60,000, does not do an Orange basketball player full justice.
"If they didn't get a scholarship and you paid them and they practice 20 hours a week, you'd have to pay them $100,000 for them to be able to pay $60,000," he said on ESPN's Mike & Mike Show on Feb. 5.
And consider the comments of Jay Bilas, the former Duke basketball player, a practicing lawyer and ESPN analyst.
"I thought it was interesting that the NCAA used the term that the idea of being an employee somehow undermines education because if that were true, there would be a prohibition against all students having a job or being employees of any kind. That's patently absurd," Bilas said on ESPN on Jan. 28 after the CAPA press conference.
Bilas brings up the point of a work-study job. Non-football players, on and off scholarship, are welcome to hold work-study positions in universities to make a profit. Most student-athletes are too busy with sports to take on these positions.
Cashiers are paid wages in the real world. Students who have work-study jobs as cashiers on college campuses receive wages.
Professional football players get paid wages. Football is a legitimate job in the real world. Bilas makes the argument the NCAA should consider treating it like a work-study job at the collegiate level.
We need to stop getting caught up in the Colter-Northwestern situation. Forget the case. Northwestern will likely end up winning the case because it really is a good NCAA program to play football for (if there is any real loser right now, it is Northwestern for having to go through this hassle).
As Teddy Greenstein of the Chicago Tribune points out: "A school official said that Northwestern attorneys will not attempt to defend the NCAA and how all football programs conduct their business. They are just defending how Northwestern does it."
Northwestern is not representative of the entire NCAA community and the university makes sure to publicize this.
Stick to the real issues. Collegiate athletes want better conditions in an NCAA system they consider outdated and unfair. In an era of big money TV contracts, big money merchandise, big money ticketing and big money advertising, NCAA athletes want a bite of the pie.
Kain Colter and CAPA are offering a compromise. They are not asking directly for NCAA athlete wages or a cut of merchandise sales. They are asking for a voice in the discussion and an insurance policy.
Colter and CAPA's goal is not to crush Northwestern University. People on the inside know that. They just cannot say it.
We need to recognize it. Then the conversation can move on.
-- Follow Jeffrey Eisenband on Twitter @JeffEisenband.
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