Northwestern Football Stays Focused Amidst Union Talk

On a picture perfect Chicago spring day, one would never guess the Northwestern football team was amidst a historic battle, in regards to the unionization of its players.  Testing out their soon to be permanent home along the lakeside (construction of new facilities slated to begin within the next year with the aid of a $3.75 billion “We Will” campaign), the team looked sharp and focused on the upcoming season.

Rewind to January 28th.  Former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter and the College Athletes Players Association, or CAPA, announced they would be trying to form a players union for scholarshipped Northwestern football players.  The list of demands includes, but is not limited, to extended medical coverage for football related injuries and increased stipends, but most importantly, the recognition that football student-athletes are actually Northwestern employees.

Following this announcement, much ugliness ensued.  The case went to trial, where Colter testified and upset many administrators and alum with a negative spin of his experience at Northwestern.   Many speculate much of this stems from the disputes about treatment and payments for his ankle injury, which has since been resolved. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald had to counter testify, defending his program, alma mater, and in some ways, his reputation.  In a shocking result, the regional National Labor Relations Board ruled that the football players are indeed Northwestern employees.  The university is set to appeal and take the case as far as the Supreme Court if necessary, but the players must first vote on April 25th.

When Colter originally presented the players with the union cards, an overwhelming majority signed.  Much has changed since then.  With more information available, players are now speaking out against the union.  Some are even saying that looking back, the union cards were presented to them with a lot of persuasion and little actual information.  Key veterans such as OL Brandon Vitabile, QB Trevor Siemian, RB Venric Mark, and WR Kyle Prater are players amongst the anti-union, all stating in some form that they have had an incredible experience at Northwestern, trust Coach Pat Fitzgerald, and under no circumstances need a third party to intervene.  They also encouraged the media going forward to focus on the football being played, not the union issue.

And for good reason.  Despite the incessant discussions and swirling rumors about the union, Northwestern came out in full pads ready to practice on Saturday.  Though there was visible rust, as to be expected in spring ball, there were many good, promising moments.  Siemian looked comfortable and poised in the pocket, settling into his new role as QB1 (instead of 1A).  Former 5 star recruit and USC transfer Kyle Prater made an incredible one handed grab (see it here), drawing extensive cheering from the fans in attendance.  All B1G Freshman cornerback Matt Harris nabbed the defense’s only interception, and looked settled into his projected starting role as he took first team reps.  The energy was palpable, and for the entire two hours, it was easy to forget that the team is going through so much controversy and national scrutiny.

It is understandable why the media is so focused on the union. It is the largest union undertaking taken against a university and could create major change in the NCAA.  However, there are more important happenings at Northwestern right now.  The team is bouncing back from a heartbreaking, underperforming season in 2013.  They are poised to make a run for the B1G title given the new East and West conference alignments. The ‘Cats are returning a majority of key players and should have a collective chip on their shoulder from last season.  The beautiful lakeside facilities are underway and the blueprints seem to embody everything that is Chicago’s B1G Team.

There are many questions floating around about the 2014 Northwestern Wildcat football team.  Will the union create too large a distraction and create a chasm in the locker room? Will the offense settle in under a one quarterback system?  Can the defense change the trend of 4th quarter heartbreaking losses, which has plagued them the last two seasons?   After observing a crisp practice on Saturday, it is clear the ‘Cats are ready to enter 2014 with a clean slate, hungry for victory and ready to make a splash with their play, not with their labor union.

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