Colleges, employers, athletes and sports enthusiasts nationwide are watching anxiously as Northwestern University and its scholarship-winning football players battle over the players’ status and right to form a labor union.
Both sides presented their arguments this week to a National Labor Relations Board hearing officer at the Dirksen Federal Building, ending with football coach Pat Fitzgerald testifying that he emphasizes academics to his players, while conceding that he told the Sun-Times in an earlier interview that playing football was, indeed, a full-time job.
Asked by a lawyer for the football players about the article, which focused on cost-of-living stipends, Fitzgerald said he believes playing football is a full-time job from “a responsibility standpoint.”
Fitzgerald said players must attend class and are not dissuaded from their dream careers or punished for needing extra study time — contradicting earlier testimony from quarterback Kain Colter.
Colter had testified that he couldn’t fulfill his dream of becoming an orthopedic doctor because of the university’s football demands, including 50 to 60 hours a week of practice, training and playing.
Colter is leading the effort to get the NLRB to rule football players who receive scholarships are university employees and have the right to form a union. The football players’ lawyers said that they are willing to represent walk-on players, too, if the NLRB rules them eligible.
Onlookers are puzzling over the implications: If NLRB Regional Director Peter Sung Ohr rules that the players are employees eligible to vote to form a union, would they be entitled to disability benefits, including coverage of their lifelong medical bills? How would a university pay for those costs? Would such an outcome hurt other sports programs?
No date is scheduled for a decision.
Meanwhile, Chris Watson, Northwestern’s dean of undergraduate admissions, testified that coaches may appeal the admissions office’s decision to reject athletes based on academic criteria, but the final decisions remain with the admissions office.
Fitzgerald, repeating that his priority is the students’ lifelong skills, said he moved football practice time to mornings from afternoons in his second coaching season to give the players greater access to classes, since few classes are held in early mornings at Northwestern.
He said only two players had their scholarships taken away during his eight-year tenure, and those were for misconduct that violated school rules.
Fitzgerald agreed with the football players’ lawyer, Gary Kohlman, that the players can spend 24 to 25 hours over a two-day period, Friday and Saturday, when they travel to away games.
But he repeated other university officials’ testimony that the NCAA caps the number of hours to 20 a week under Countable Athletically Related Activity (CARA) rules. Those rules omit hours in travel, warmups, extra practices and other activities that the NCAA deems voluntary.