Northwestern coach: Focus on team

EVANSTON, Ill. -- Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald says he has made his position on the recent union talk surrounding his program pretty clear, so he was happy to try to move the conversation toward football Tuesday after the Wildcats' first spring practice since returning from spring break.

"You know, I think the things that I've said have been clear," said Fitzgerald, making his first public comments since Wednesday's decision by the Chicago office of the National Labor Relations Board that Northwestern football players are employees under the definition established by federal labor law. "So, as I move forward, I'm coaching my football team, and that's my focus."

The NLRB has ordered an election among all Northwestern scholarship football players with eligibility remaining. The school must file a list of eligible voters on Wednesday. By April 9, Northwestern must file a "request for review" by the five-member NLRB board based in Washington. Northwestern has said it will appeal the decision.

Much of the university was scattered across the country when last week's ruling came down, as students had left for break between the winter and spring quarters. Fitzgerald had not had a chance to address his team on the ruling before speaking to reporters Tuesday, and a school spokesman said the athletic department had a meeting with school lawyers scheduled for Tuesday afternoon.

Fitzgerald said the issue has not been a distraction for his program and that his relationship with his players has been "outstanding" and will not change.

"There's a lot of things that we'll discuss here," Fitzgerald said. "But from a standpoint of the way that we have operated here, I have full confidence in the way that we run our program, and the guys have been terrific and I think they've shown the commitment to the program, so it's no change for us."

Fitzgerald had testified against the union on Feb. 21, saying at the time: "We want [players] to be the best they can be ... athletically, academically, socially ... to be a champion in life."

He said then that he tells players that academics "is their priority," and he had said he has known players who ended up going to medical school. Fitzgerald also cited his time juggling football and academics when he was an All-American linebacker at Northwestern in the 1990s.

"I had plenty of time to do both," he said at the time.

On Jan. 28, when former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, the College Athletes Players Association and the United Steelworkers announced their intent to form the union, Fitzgerald tweeted: "Kain and our student-athletes have followed their beliefs with great passion and courage. I'm incredibly proud of our young men! GO CATS!"

On Tuesday, Northwestern players admitted to being a little surprised by all the attention that has engulfed their program since the forming of CAPA.

Redshirt senior running back Venric Mark said the national exposure has been good for Northwestern, but he does not think it will serve as a distraction in the locker room. Mark refused to disclose whether he signed a union card in January before Colter and CAPA unveiled their plan.

"Guys did sign cards supporting Kain and what he's trying to do and his movement, but at the end of the day, as I stated, everything outside of our locker room is outside of our locker room," Mark said. "And so some guys signed, some guys didn't. I don't know if people kind of knew what they were going to get into, if they thought it was going to turn out the way it did.

"But at the end of the day, now it's time to get back to work. We have a job here, and we understand that. Kain's no longer on this football team."

Redshirt senior Chance Carter, a defensive tackle, said Colter sent the entire team a long email after last week's ruling but admitted he had not had the chance to read it all yet.

Carter did, however, say that he signed a union card and has no regrets.

"I really do think there are some inconsistencies with the NCAA regarding student-athletes," Carter said.