Two former Northwestern University football players who started as walk-ons and who had limited playing time testified Tuesday at a National Labor Relations Board hearing that they pursued demanding careers in engineering and pre-med.
They testified for the university in an effort to counter quarterback Kain Colter’s earlier testimony that he was unable to pursue his dream of becoming an orthopedic doctor because of the demanding football schedule.
In all, three former Northwestern football players testified that their coaches, including head coach Pat Fitzgerald, encouraged and helped them to earn their academic degrees, and that they had to learn to manage their time in order to play football and be successful in the classroom.
The hearing pits Colter and his player allies in the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA) who want to be ruled “employees” of the university — and thus eligible to form a union — against the university, which contends the football players are students first-and-foremost. Though experts believe that Northwestern is the wrong school for the debate, since its football players’ graduation rate is the highest in its Division I category, they say the implications could be enormous: If the football players were deemed to be employees, they could be eligible for workers’ compensation and disability benefits, including coverage of lifelong medical bills, and their scholarships would no longer be tax-exempt.
Hearing officer Joyce Hofstra on Tuesday declined to let lawyers for the football players ask one of the former players if he considered his playing and practicing time a full-time job — a key consideration in figuring whether the students are being paid for their services by being awarded athletic scholarships. But the football players’ lawyers did get the former players to agree that they would have suffered consequences if they had violated team rules — part of their argument that coaches can treat players unfairly and players have no representation in those cases.
The former football players saw less playing time than did Colter, either because of injuries or their position on the team.
The witnesses were Doug Bartels, an offensive lineman who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Northwestern and is now studying to become a doctor at Rush University’s medical college; John Henry Pace, an engineer who helps design future Mustangs at Ford Motor Co., who was a long snapper on the football field, and Patrick “Pat” Ward, a structural engineer at Boeing Co. in St. Louis who was a starting offensive tackle the last three years of his four-year football career from 2009-2012. Ward was the only one who had an athletic scholarship during his entire time at Northwestern. The other two were walk-ons who earned athletic scholarships during their time on the team.
All three had high grade point averages during college and said their coaches helped them overcome conflicts between playing football and taking the classes they needed to earn their degrees.
Those comments, too, conflicted with Colter’s testimony on Feb. 18, in which Colter said his grueling schedule of 50-60 hours a week prevented him from taking certain courses and that his academic advisor counseled him to stay away from more demanding classes such as chemistry during his freshman year so that he could ease into his demanding football role.
Bartels completed a master’s in liberal studies at Northwestern in 2012 after having earned a bachelor’s in biological anthropology in 2011. His undergraduate grade point average was 3.5.
Pace’s GPA was 3.15 and Ward’s was 3.94.
Colter said he expects to finish his final credit hours with a grade point average of 3.1 to 3.2.
The five days of testimony on the issue will go to the regional director of the NLRB, who is expected to rule within four to six weeks whether football players are employees of the university.
The ultimate decision could go to the full NLRB board in Washington, D.C., and on to a Court of Appeals, depending on the future rulings.
After the hearing ended Tuesday afternoon, Ramogi Huma, president of the National College Players Association, said testimony about players’ grades is irrelevant to their status as employees. Huma is a representative for the players.