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Pat Fitzgerald testifies at Northwestern National Labor Relations Board hearing

Pat FitzgeraldNorthwestern head football coach Pat Fitzgerald testified at an NLRB hearing on Friday. (Jeff Haynes/AP)

CHICAGO -- Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald testified on Friday at the National Labor Relations Board hearing regarding NU football players’ petition to form a union as university employees. Fitzgerald was questioned for more than two hours about topics ranging from players' daily schedules to recruiting to team codes of conduct.

Earlier this week, former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, the face of players’ movement to gain collective bargaining rights under CAPA, said there was “no way around” the fact that football is a “job.” However, when asked by an attorney representing Northwestern to describe his basic duties as head coach, Fitzgerald -- who conceded he had read “very little” of Colter’s testimony -- spoke first about academics. He said he is a teacher and an educator, and that part of his responsibility includes making sure his players reach their academic potential. “Creating structure from a standpoint of academic success,” Fitzgerald said. “We want to graduate 100 percent of our players and prepare them for life.”

Later in his testimony, Fitzgerald described the process he and his staff use to evaluate recruits. The evaluation begins, according to Fitzgerald, with determining whether a player is academically qualified. “The first test is his academic credentials,” he said.  “The expectations from out admissions department are much higher than the NCAA minimums.”

Colter said in his testimony that he and his teammates had difficulty scheduling classes around football. But Fitzgerald said he moved practice times to the morning early in his second season at the helm in order to accommodate players’ schedules. Fitzgerald also said players have been allowed to leave practice early for class and that players were never told they couldn’t miss practice for class.

Colter noted that he knew of advisors steering players into certain classes, but Fitzgerald said he has “no knowledge” of that ever happening. Fitzgerald recounted one player who asked to sit out of a game because he was falling behind academically; the player was allowed to miss practice to study the week leading up to that game, Fitzgerald said.

Colter said that he once dreamed of becoming an orthopedic surgeon, but football prevented him from pursuing Northwestern’s rigorous pre-med track. "Everything we do is scheduled around football," Colter said. "We're brought to the university to play football." On Friday, Fitzgerald said he doesn’t remember an instance where football hindered a player’s ability to go into a certain field.

In his cross-examination of Fitzgerald, an attorney representing CAPA asked Fitzgerald whether he believed Colter testified truthfully (a Northwestern attorney's objection to the question was upheld). The CAPA attorney also asked detailed questions about the schedules Fitzgerald and his staff put in place for players, and he pressed the coach on the team’s policy regarding player dismissal. Fitzgerald said any decision to revoke a player’s scholarship is made in conjunction with university officials and that punishment for broken rules often involves extra study halls. In his eight-year tenure as head coach, Fitzgerald recalls two individuals – one who illicitly fired a BB gun and one who didn't abide by the school's the drug and alcohol policy -- who were removed from the team. "But that was not my decision," he said.

Fitzgerald initially disagreed with the CAPA attorney’s characterization of football as a “full-time job.” Yet after the attorney brought up an article published in the Chicago Sun-Times last July in which Fitzgerald was quoted as saying that being a student-athlete is a “full-time job,” Fitzgerald acknowledged that it is a full-time job from a “responsibility standpoint.”

Northwestern center Brandon Vitabile released a statement to the Chicago Tribune on behalf of the players. “Northwestern University, specifically the athletics department and the football program, has given us every opportunity within their power to succeed, not only on the field, but in the classroom and after graduation. 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.”

The core question the National Labor Relations Board must address is whether student-athletes should be considered employees of their university. Under CAPA, Northwestern football players seek to collectively bargain for certain reforms, such as coverage for injury-related medical expenses and the establishment of a trust fund to help former athletes complete their degrees.

On Thursday, Joyce Hofstra, an NLRB hearing officer, cast some doubt on CAPA’s case. “I think the record established so far is weak on the players’ side,” Hofstra said. While a decision could come within the next month, it could be appealed to the national board in Washington and possibly up to the Supreme Court. The hearing is scheduled to resume on Tuesday.

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