Union questions upstage Northwestern’s spring football game

Written By BY RICK TELANDER Sports Columnist Posted: 04/14/2014, 11:54am
Array Trevor Siemian throws a pass during Northwestern spring football practice at the Lakeside Field Athletic Complex in Evanston, Ill., on Saturday, April 13, 2013. | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media

Northwestern’s spring football game Saturday was interesting. Lightning and thunder were everywhere. There also was turbulence in the air.

Coach Pat Fitzgerald wasn’t thrilled about being forced to move the event to the small domed facility attached to Welsh-Ryan Arena because of the weather. But he was even less thrilled about the bubbling union issue that has his young men confused, uncertain and possibly distracted from their main task at hand, which is contending for the Big Ten championship next fall.

Yes, the sky was threatening. But the psychological lights and booms were everywhere. Quite simply, we’re witnessing the nucleus of the biggest player revolt in the 108-year history of the NCAA.

Whatever ambivalence the Wildcats’ players feel about the union/amateur debate that has been raised by former quarterback Kain Colter and seconded by the Chicago office of the National Labor Relations Board — an issue that fundamentally could divide Fitzgerald and his staff from the scholarship-receiving ‘‘student-workers’’ — they must vote ‘‘yes’’ or ‘‘no’’ on forming a union April 25. There’s no ‘‘maybe’’ on the ballot.

Fitzgerald is against it. His reasons are based on a concern for his players. NU is pushing toward a 99 percent graduation rate, which athletic director Jim Phillips says might be coming soon.

No scholarship player gets dumped after a year — or two or three — under Fitzgerald unless that kid messed up big. A redshirted player often can take a fifth year, earn a graduate degree and have rung up what, on the open market, is worth more than $300,000 in educational value at one of the best universities in the country.

Most painful, for Fitzgerald and athletic-department management, is the sense of trust being lost, of the worst of unions themselves. Colter’s nascent organization, the College Athletes Players Association, is, after all, being supported by the United Steelworkers, a union that recently added Los Angeles car washers and Canadian forestry workers to its 860,000-member fold.

In the United States, we generally despise unions. We see them as destroyers of the status quo and supporters of the laziest. Such ruling-class anger was manifest in Chicago in 1937, when police mowed down unarmed steelworker protesters marching toward a South Side mill, killing 10, wounding 30 and nearly clubbing to death another two dozen.

That’s not going to happen again. But unionization of college football would be an almost incomprehensibly radical change in the NCAA’s business as usual.

‘‘I’m very proud of our guys for stepping up and raising these issues,’’ a clearly annoyed Fitzgerald said after the scrimmage. ‘‘But there are [other] mechanisms for change. I think it’s been well-documented that I’ve been an advocate for change; I just don’t believe that unionization is the way to go.’’

There are many things that stand in the way of a union deal at NU. Among them are the pending review by the national NLRB over the Chicago office’s ruling that what the players do is work and the players’ own vote. The Supreme Court might figure into things before all is said and done.

What is undeniable is that the revenue-producing college football and men’s basketball system is under attack and must change. The NCAA is repressive, mercenary and exploitative. And no close observer can disagree.

Ironically, the union concept has gotten this far precisely because NU does so many things right for its athletes. Wildcats players actually learn in class.

Colter, a talented, well-spoken, intelligent leader, might be seen as a turncoat by some. But nowhere has a student gone this far with a complex, controversial, philosophical principle — one ultimately defined by sharing and fairness — except at a big-time sports school with Ivy League academic standards.

‘‘I will say everybody’s intent is to create change in a positive way,’’ NU linebacker Collin Ellis said. ‘‘So, in that sense, I’m proud of Kain and what [CAPA] is trying to accomplish. However, I’m not willing to sacrifice what I have here in order for possible change to occur.’’

Other players feel the same. They speak about believing at the beginning that they would be taking on the NCAA monstrosity, not NU itself. Others still want the union.

All the players I spoke with wanted fairness for everyone in big-time ball. They spoke of ‘‘martyring ourselves for other schools that don’t have it as good as we do,’’ as Ellis put it.

These young men are thinkers.

‘‘This is the real deal,’’ quarterback Trevor Siemian said. ‘‘And guys have to treat it like that.’’

Knowing what we know of this program, they will.

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