Northwestern University football team quarterback Kain Colter on Tuesday described grinding, game-focused 11-hour days as he sought to show a labor board that he and his scholarship-recipient teammates deserve union representation.
“It’s a job. It’s war,” Colter, 21, said during a National Labor Relations Board hearing in Chicago, likening the preparation for play to Navy SEALs preparing for an operation in Iraq. He wore a walking boot on his right foot and ankle, after hurting his ankle during a game.
With prompting from lawyer John Adam, the attorney for the College Athletes Players Association, Colter reviewed daily logs filled with drills, practice, weightlifting, film analysis and cold-tub soaks — which combined could sometimes stretch from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.
On game weekends, players could spend 24 hours from Friday morning through the Saturday game day on football, he said.
Colter says he understands that the NCAA has its own rules to count hours, and is not accusing it of wrongdoing.
“This is reality what I talk about,” he said. “The game itself is way more than three hours.”
Another reality, Colter said, is that the demands of the football program prevented him from realizing his dream of being a doctor.
“It had always been my dream and my mother’s dream [for me] to be a doctor — an ortho surgeon and the team doctor,” said Colter, who started as a pre-med major and will soon graduate with a bachelor’s degree in psychology.
Though not accusing Northwestern of wrongdoing, Colter also testified his academic advisors suggested he not start his freshman year by taking difficult classes such as chemistry — a pre-med requirement — and that he was prohibited from taking such classes during morning hours because they would interfere with football practice schedules.
“We spent a lot more time performing football activities than academic,” he said. “It just shows we’re brought there to play football,” he said, referring to players on scholarship.
Colter said he took three chemistry classes as his advisors suggested during summer and condensed periods but realized he couldn’t take all of the pre-med classes under the pressures of the football program.
Colter played under a $76,000 scholarship; he said he had no problem with the amount. Under questioning from Northwestern University attorney Anna Wermuth, Colter, who is four credit hours shy of graduation, acknowledged that he took a full course load of classes; earned academic Big 10 honors each year he was eligible; and that he continues to receive his full scholarship funding while practicing in Florida for the NFL Combine tryouts and participating in his current classes via Skype. He also had no reductions in his scholarship earlier in his career when he couldn’t play due to injuries.
Nevertheless, Colter detailed restrictions that govern football players, such as being required to obtain their own medical insurance or to buy primary or secondary insurance from a company sanctioned by Northwestern; being unable to sign autographs except those requested by the university, and being careful what they post on Twitter, Facebook and other social media.
The hearing Tuesday was moved to the Dirksen Federal Building from the NLRB’s regional office to provide more space for the media and an audience of lawyers, students, university officials, season ticket-holders and others in the audience.
Colter said it took “a good chunk of his time” to found the College Athletes Players Association, which seeks to represent Northwestern’s football players who receive scholarships — about 85 of the 100 players.
The players association, on whose board Colter sits, asserts that the players need an organized advocacy group to stand up for their rights.
Colter said the group’s goal could expand to walk-on players and women’s sports.
“This is the beginning — not the end,” he said.
Northwestern argues the players are primarily students, and that the players association fails to meet the standards required of a labor organization.
The university also says the students constitute “an arbitrary grouping” whose members attend school on athletic scholarships, and that it is unclear which members of the group would be eligible to vote for a union. Colter, for example, exhausts his NCAA eligibility before a vote. Furthermore, walk-on players who receive no scholarships would get no vote.
One labor expert agrees with the football team that while universities gain billions from ticket sales, championship games and TV and licensing agreements, many players do not receive enough financial aid to pay the full cost of their tuition, books, fees and other expenses.
Michael LeRoy, a professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, states in a posting on the university’s website that the NCAA won’t confront the fact that it is professionalizing college football unless players threaten to unionize.
Players association attorney John Adam repeated Tuesday his “worker” definition of football players: That Northwestern football players “must be disciplined, fit, resilient and smart.
“They must be dedicated,” he said. “They must meet these demanding requirements and put in long hours year round. Being a football player at Northwestern is hard work. It is a labor of love for most of these players.”
Adam said while the players “appreciate what Northwestern does for them, they want a voice” in their insurance coverage, health and safety, and their present and future, including when they get hurt or otherwise cannot play due to injury or need more time to finish school.
Colter read a statement to the news media after his testimony, saying today’s football team “may not personally benefit from our role in today’s events… We’re taking steps to improve the game we love for future generations.”
Alex Barbour, a Northwestern attorney, said students can benefit from scholarships without setting foot on the football field, and that scholarships are not the sole or guiding criteria for recruiting student athletes.
He said Northwestern has the highest graduation rate among student athletes, at 97 percent, among Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (FSB) schools, and that recognizing the labor petition would require the NCAA’s governance structure to be revamped.
Joseph Tilson, another Northwestern attorney, told the media after the hearing that if the NLRB rules that the university’s football players are employees, “they are temporary employees.”
“By definition, they are here for only a finite period of time,” Tilson said.
Tim Waters, national political director for the United Steelworkers Union, said he believes Northwestern University “is beginning to hedge their bets maybe a little bit” in the face of compelling evidence of an employee-employer relationship.
The hearings continue for at least the next two days.