SBD/February 24, 2014/Colleges

Northwestern Coach's NLRB Testimony Defends Against Claims Of Academic Obstruction

Fitzgerald's NLRB testimony last more than three hours on Friday
Northwestern Univ. football coach Pat Fitzgerald on Friday "defended his football program" during his testimony at the National Labor Relations Board hearing that is "considered the first step in his players' effort to unionize," according to Greenstein & Cancino of the CHICAGO TRIBUNE. Fitzgerald said that his program "stresses academics over football." He added that a player last season said that he was "behind academically." Fitzgerald allowed the unnamed player to "take the week off from practice and had him study at the football complex, rather than attend meetings." The player "missed the Nebraska game but returned to the field the following week." Fitzgerald also said he had read "very little" of former QB Kain Colter's testimony in which he said football kept him from academics. He "agreed with Colter’s calculation that players spend up to 27 hours on away games," but said that per NCAA rules, the hours "reported are fewer than 27." Fitzgerald was cross-examined by College Athletes Players Association attorney Gary Kohlman, and if Kohlman was "trying to get a rise out of Fitzgerald" with a comment about a loss to Michigan, "it did not work." The coach's "facial expression did not change." NU C Brandon Vitabile in an e-mailed statement on behalf of the team wrote, "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" (CHICAGO TRIBUNE, 2/22). In Chicago, Seth Gruen noted Fitzgerald "testified for more than three hours," and even when "baited by university attorneys, Fitzgerald resisted the opportunity to fire back at Colter." Fitzgerald "didn’t admonish his players; he galvanized them to come to his support," and he "walked out of the ­courtroom with his ­program unscathed" (CHICAGO SUN-TIMES, 2/22). 

A DIFFERENT INTERPRETATION: ESPN.com's Lester Munson wrote Fitzgerald was "wholly convincing" describing his treatment and "his leadership of his players." But the same "sincerity and credibility that make him a persuasive witness and a great coach began to work against Northwestern" when Kohlman began to cross-examine him. Fitzgerald admitted that he could "terminate players' scholarships, that he could veto their choice of an apartment, that he told them what to wear on road trips, that he restricted their access to the media, that he required them to register their cars, and that he had 51 percent of the vote on a 'leadership council' that was supposed to be the voice of the players." He agreed with Kohlman that the "'tender' agreement that every Division I athlete signs is a legal contract that governs the relationship between the player and the team." Colter and the union insist that the tender is the "contract that proves the players are employee-athletes and not student-athletes." Fitzgerald also "gave the players another unexpected gift under questioning by Kohlman," when he said football was a "full-time job from the responsibility standpoint." His testimony was a "major breakthrough for the players" (ESPN.com, 2/21). In N.Y., Ben Strauss wrote it is "almost certain that once a decision is reached by the regional board, which is expected about a month after the hearing ends, it will be appealed to the federal level." The NLRB is "part of the executive branch and appointments are made by the party that occupies the White House." President Obama is a Democrat whose party is "usually more sympathetic to labor" (N.Y. TIMES, 2/23).

MEANWHILE, IN INDY: In Chicago, David Haugh wrote the CAPA "picked the wrong place in Northwestern and the wrong face in Colter to represent how the ills of college football exploit players." Colter "participated this weekend at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis," so if NU "failed Colter the last four years, then every 18-year-old recruit should be so disappointed." Haugh: "What an unfortunate transformation for Colter, who came across as a whiny, clock-watching locker room lawyer. ... How long before Colter regrets this little publicity tour?" (CHICAGO TRIBUNE, 2/23). Former Ohio State CB Bradley Roby yesterday during the NFL Combine said he thinks that "college players think they should be paid." He added, "This is my first time hearing about Northwestern, but I can understand it. Being a college athlete is very tough. It’s very hard on you. You’re not getting any compensation for that, but you’re seeing new stadiums being built, big TVs and big flat screens put everywhere. You’re like, ‘Man, where is all this money coming from?’ It’s a tough situation, but you have to deal with it" (BOSTONHERALD.com, 2/23). In Boston, Jeff Howe writes Roby "provided a series of honest responses that displayed the way certain players feel about their services rendered" (BOSTON HERALD, 2/24).
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