Football coach gives players hope

CHICAGO -- After a National Labor Relations Board hearing examiner told Northwestern University football players and their wannabe union representatives that their case was "weak" and that they had offered no proof on the important issue of the relationship between the players and their coach, the athletes and union folks were looking for a break.

The break came almost exactly 24 hours later -- on Friday -- and it came in the highly unlikely form of testimony from Wildcats head football coach Pat Fitzgerald.

Articulate and persuasive, Fitzgerald refers to himself as the "best player-development coach in the country." When he talks about his "young men" and how he wants to give them a "world-class experience" that will allow them "to be the best that they can be," you find yourself believing him and subscribing to his gung ho programs for self-improvement.

He testified that he actually believes in the term "student-athlete," a term that has come to symbolize for many all that is wrong with college sports -- the commercialization; the use of football and basketball players to produce billions for the NCAA, colleges and conferences; and the hypocrisy of classifying these athletes as minors to avoid paying them for their work.

In what Fitzgerald says is a "holistic approach" to coaching football, he told hearing examiner Joyce Hofstra that he wanted his players to progress in their academic, social and athletic endeavors. Each day, he said, offers his players "life lessons," and they must "choose to have a terrific attitude" and to "invest greatly and find success."

Fitzgerald is wholly convincing as he describes his treatment and his leadership of his players. When he stated, for example, that his goal for Northwestern football was a "national championship," no one in the crowded courtroom laughed or even smirked.

The same sincerity and credibility that make him a persuasive witness and a great coach began to work against Northwestern, though, when union attorney Gary Kohlman began to cross-examine the coach. Quietly and artfully, Kohlman led Fitzgerald into exactly the type of proof that the hearing examiner described as missing only a day earlier.

Fitzgerald admitted that he could terminate players' scholarships, that he could veto their choice of an apartment, that he told them what to wear on road trips, that he restricted their access to the media, that he required them to register their cars, and that he had 51 percent of the vote on a "leadership council" that was supposed to be the voice of the players.

Although Fitzgerald insisted that Northwestern did not enforce each of its terms, he did agree with Kohlman that the "tender" agreement that every Division I athlete signs is a legal contract that governs the relationship between the player and the team. The "tender" is the contract that the union and player leader Kain Colter insist is the contract that proves the players are employee-athletes and not student-athletes. According to the players, it sets the terms of their employment, gives the coach considerable control over their lives and establishes their compensation. The university views the "tender" as a grant of a scholarship and a statement of the rules governing scholarship athletes.

In addition to the description of the relationship between the players and himself, Fitzgerald gave the players another unexpected gift under questioning by Kohlman.

Relying on a feature story by reporter Seth Gruen in the Chicago Sun-Times on July 25, 2013, Kohlman asked Fitzgerald whether he had ever described playing football at Northwestern as a "full-time job." The players' contention is, of course, that football is their full-time job and that they are employees who are entitled to form a union.

Forthright and honest, Fitzgerald looked at the newspaper article and said, "it is an accurate story." He added that football was a "full-time job from the responsibility standpoint."

It was a major breakthrough for the players and ended any concern they may have had on Thursday when the hearing examiner asserted that their case was "weak."

Northwestern attorney Alex Barbour had a chance to repair the damage when it was his turn to question Fitzgerald, but he asked only two questions on an unrelated issue and brought Fitzgerald's testimony to an end without further damage.

Neither the Northwestern attorneys nor the university's public relations representatives would discuss Fitzgerald's admission that a Northwestern player had a "full-time job," and Fitzgerald declined to talk with reporters after the hearing.

Although there was no sign of concern within the Northwestern legal team, the hearing was unexpectedly extended into next week. Ramogi Huma, the leader of the players' union effort, said the players have completed their proofs and have no intention of presenting additional witnesses. It appears that the university will offer additional witnesses on Tuesday in an effort to undo the damage it suffered in Fitzgerald's testimony.