Northwestern coach: Football team puts academics first
Northwestern University head football coach Pat Fitzgerald arrives at the Dirksen U.S. courthouse today to testify at the National Labor Relations Board hearing. (Antonio Perez, Chicago Tribune / February 21, 2014)
The football team is trying to be recognized as a union in an effort to gain a series of new rights, including financial coverage for sports-related medical expenses and "due process" before a coach could strip a player of his scholarship for a rules violation.
Quarterback Kain Colter earlier in the week stressed that participating in football at NU was a job, adding he switched to a less-demanding major so it would interfere less with football.
But Fitzgerald, who testified on the fourth day of a hearing in front of the National Labor Relations Board, that his program stresses academics over football.
He said that last season, a player said 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. He missed the Nebraska game but returned to the field the following week.
The only consequence, Fitzgerald said, was that "someone took over his role and he would have to compete (again) for that role."
Under cross-examination by CAPA attorney Gary Kohlman, Fitzgerald was asked repeatedly whether a violation of team rules could result in the removal of a scholarship. Fitzgerald said several times that there are “consequences” for a player’s actions just as there are consequences for all decisions in life.
“I’m trying to teach them how to be prepared for life and football is a part of that,” he said.
Fitzgerald also said he had read "very little" of Colter's testimony. He agreed with Colter’s calculation that players spend up to 27 hours on away games, but said per NCAA rules, the hours reported are fewer than 27.
Colter portrayed NU coaches as controlling, saying that players could not live off campus as junior or seniors without having a coach approve their lease.
Fitzgerald said that is done to "make sure there is no impropriety" (i.e. an extra benefit that would violate an NCAA rule) and "to make sure they are in a safe environment. That’s what their parents have entrusted me to do."
Kohlman had Fitzgerald go through the schedule before NU’s game at Michigan in 2012, adding: "As a fluke, Michigan beat you. And I went to Michigan, so that's why I chose (to talk about) 2012."
If he was trying to get a rise out of Fitzgerald, it did not work. The coach’s facial expression did not change.
Before breaking for lunch, Fitzgerald said he "disagreed" with Kohlman’s contention that being a college football player is a "full-time job."
Kohlman then pointed to a Sun-Times story from July 26. During Big Ten media days, Fitzgerald was asked about the need for players to receive a stipend.
"I'm looking, probably like every coach, to do whatever is right best for our student-athletes, whatever gives them the opportunity to have the best experience possible while they're going through the full-time job by being a student-athlete," Fitzgerald was quoted by the Sun-Times. "Does that mean a stipend? I don't have the answers."
Asked about the quote, Fitzgerald called it "a full-time job from a responsibility standpoint, yes."
NU center Brandon Vitabile emailed a statement to the Tribune on Friday that he said was on behalf of "the team."
It said, in part: “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. We firmly believe that Northwestern University is one of the best places in the country to earn an education and compete as an elite athlete.”
Vitabile declined to say whether he had signed a union card, as the vast majority of NU players did Jan. 26 during a meeting with Colter.
"I am a proud member of this team," he said. "I am in support of the team 100 percent."
Testimony at the McKinley Dirksen Federal Building in downtown Chicago could conclude today or spill into next week. Then the NLRB will decide the central question: Are NU football players employees of the university?
A university spokesman said that Fitzgerald will not take questions from the media one his testimony concludes.