Tuesday was a big time in the "Northwestern football tries to form a union" thing: Kain Colter and those trying to start a union called the College Athletes Players Association squared off with Northwestern representatives in a courthouse in front of the National Labor Relations Board, the government agency that can say whether something is a union or not.
Unionizin' Must Reads
No, this isn't about pay-for-play
College athletes at Northwestern University began an attempt to create a union. And if you actually listen to them, they're not calling for that thing you're disagreeing with them over.
Colter and crew were charged with showing that student-athletes are, in effect, employees of Northwestern University: that in order to receive their scholarship, they have to play football, and that in order to play football, they have to do a variety of things normal students don't have to do, and that this legally makes them employees. Northwestern was charged with saying, well, not that: that student-athletes are students, and that football is just a part of the academic process.
In a twist that apparently surprised some people, the proceedings were not exactly pretty, for Northwestern or for Colter, as they each tried to point out why the other was wrong.
No matter what happens today in CHI, Northwestern athl/academics being heavily scrutinized.— Dennis Dodd (@dennisdoddcbs) February 18, 2014
Utterly shocked at the cheap shots Kain Colter is lobbing at #Northwestern— Seth Gruen (@SethGruen) February 18, 2014
What exactly did Colter say? Well, what he did was testify under oath in great detail about his college experience.
The point of Colter's testimony was to prove that college football is a job, and not simply an additional thing some students do to enhance their educational careers.
He did this by showing college football players get paid:
Colter: "[I received a scholarship] to play football, to perform an athletic service."— Inside Northwestern (@insidenu) February 18, 2014
Interesting: #Northwestern valued one-year Colter/fball scholly at $75k/yr. Sent official document to his parents stating that.— Teddy Greenstein (@TeddyGreenstein) February 18, 2014
(A reminder: This is still not about getting paid. It's about gaining the ability to bargain for stuff, like safety guidleines, help with medical bills, and academic help. In fact, to argue that he's an employee, it's crucial that Colter show he's already getting paid.)
He did that by showing college football players work a preposterous amount of time:
Colter says training camp is football "all day, every day." Said a football player dedicates 50-60 hours during camp, 40-50 during season— Seth Gruen (@SethGruen) February 18, 2014
Colter now going through hour-by-hour training camp schedule. Again, Adam emphasizing extent of #Northwestern's control over daily life.— Inside Northwestern (@insidenu) February 18, 2014
Another example of a typical football schedule, this for a Monday: pic.twitter.com/BCITxxqjGt— Rohan Nadkarni (@Rohan_NU) February 18, 2014
(During this segment of things, Colter made a rather inapt comparison of football players to "Navy SEALs." This was a clumsty step on a generally very well-rehearsed day because a) being a college football player is not like being a Navy SEAL in any way b) many people already think the college football union push is entitled players not realizing what they have, and now they are entitled players who think they're as good as military members who risk their lives. This is the inevitable backlash to having Navy SEALs participate in your football team's training every year.)
He did this by showing that this intense schedule often interfered with his academic life, even though student-athletes are supposedly students first.
Colter called himself a "decent" HS student who would not have been admitted to #Northwestern w/o football.— Teddy Greenstein (@TeddyGreenstein) February 18, 2014
Colter says coaches and athletic academic advisors do not allow players to schedule any classes before 11 a.m.— Rohan Nadkarni (@Rohan_NU) February 18, 2014
Colter says he was steered away from premed track, taking chemistry and scheduling a 10a class.— Teddy Greenstein (@TeddyGreenstein) February 18, 2014
Colter: "Football makes it hard for you to succeed (academically.) You have to sacrifice one and we're not allowed to sacrifice football."— Rohan Nadkarni (@Rohan_NU) February 18, 2014
Colter says he is very far behind on his pre-med track. Couldn't fit Bio, orgo, physics and math requirements into his schedule. #CAPA— Rohan Nadkarni (@Rohan_NU) February 18, 2014
Colter said players can't take eight-week classes in the summer. They conflict with Kenosha.— Inside Northwestern (@insidenu) February 18, 2014
Colter says the university created a special Swahili class for athletes who needed it.— Inside Northwestern (@insidenu) February 18, 2014
He did this by attempting to show that football coaches exert an incredibly high control over the lives of student athletes, in a way university officials don't have the authority to control regular students:
Colter says whenever players fly home they must give flight information to their position coaches. Players flew on Christmas before bowl.— Rohan Nadkarni (@Rohan_NU) February 18, 2014
Colter says that one group of players who took their lease to a coach, were told not to live there because coach did not approve the area.— Rohan Nadkarni (@Rohan_NU) February 18, 2014
Colter says players are barely able to see families. Three main vacations are spring break, four/five days before bowl, week in June.— Rohan Nadkarni (@Rohan_NU) February 18, 2014
Colter bringing up that a company hired by #Northwestern tells players how to manage their social media. Their speech is trained, monitored.— Rohan Nadkarni (@Rohan_NU) February 18, 2014
Colter said one time he got a free pair of Oakleys for signing up for a golf tournament and tweeted a picture. NU told him to take it down.— Inside Northwestern (@insidenu) February 18, 2014
He said that his diet was closely managed:
Colter: "I'm sad to say I was on weight loss for a bit." Players are separated into weight loss, gain and maintenance categories for meals.— Rohan Nadkarni (@Rohan_NU) February 18, 2014
According to Colter players forced to attend "training table" which are basically mandatory team meals paid for by player stipends— Seth Gruen (@SethGruen) February 18, 2014
He said that he was asked to pay for medical expenses out of pocket.
Colter says NU refused to pay for his MRI. Says they only agreed to reimburse him after they saw there was major damage.— Rohan Nadkarni (@Rohan_NU) February 18, 2014
Colter says NU went back and tried to make things right after initially not helping with his ankle injury.— Rohan Nadkarni (@Rohan_NU) February 18, 2014
Of course, Northwestern's lawyers tried to to disprove every claim he made.
They argued that college football players are not paid:
Lawyer asks Colter if he pays taxes on his scholarship. That's their way of saying it's not "income."— Inside Northwestern (@insidenu) February 18, 2014
Northwestern tried to argue that Colter was lying about the amount of work he put in:
On Kain's Chicago field studies application, he wrote he only practiced 20 hours a week. Not the 40 or 50 discussed earlier.— Rohan Nadkarni (@Rohan_NU) February 18, 2014
Northwestern tried to argue that football helped Colter academically, providing him new thinking angles:
NU lawyer trying to argue that players learn to "critically analyze information" by playing football.— Rohan Nadkarni (@Rohan_NU) February 18, 2014
And that football gave him opportunities he wouldn't have otherwise had:
Lawyer keeps pressing Colter, asking if Jacob Schmidt helped him get his internship at Goldman Sachs. He keeps denying that.— Inside Northwestern (@insidenu) February 18, 2014
And Northwestern argued that despite the academic setbacks, Colter was able -- in fact, required, to some extents -- to complete his degree.
NU lawyer trying to get Colter to say he's a great student. Colter saying he wasn't. Funny.— Inside Northwestern (@insidenu) February 18, 2014
#Northwestern attny trying to use Colter’s academic success (GPA of 3.1-3.2) against him. Her point: He had enough time to study.— Teddy Greenstein (@TeddyGreenstein) February 18, 2014
(It's important to note that this line of questioning led to the greatest zinger we'll see:)
NU lawyer also asks if academics contributed to him choosing NU. Colter: "I almost committed to Nebraska. (They) aren't NU or Stanford."— Inside Northwestern (@insidenu) February 18, 2014
Interestingly, uninvolved former NU football players had points to make about the minutiae of Colter's obviously one-sided points. Nate Williams pointed out football helped him get opportunities after college:
NUFB helped me get a 2nd round interview w/ Merrill Lynchs private wealth group. My 60K undergrad education wasnt sufficient enough.— Twerkshire Hathaway (@BigEasyCat44) February 18, 2014
And that people left practice for class sometimes (although only a very little bit)
@insidenu I did, along with at least 3-4 others for a SESP class none the less. only missed the 10-15 minute post practice stretch tho.— Twerkshire Hathaway (@BigEasyCat44) February 18, 2014
Former walk-on Ricky Weina seemed to take offense to the idea that walk-ons were allowed to leave practice early (a critical point, since Colter argues that scholarship = payment)
@insidenu That's awfully convenient for the union argument that divides scholarship and walk-on players. And just not true...— Ricky Weina (@AWRick47) February 18, 2014
It's tough to figure out how to feel about this. As a Northwestern football fan, it is not enjoyable to see one of my favorite players in recent memory seizing at the opportunity to dish dirt about Northwestern.
Let's take a step back. If you're reading this, I imagine you are a fan of the sport of college football. College football exists because a long time ago, the rich kids going to colleges played something resembling the sport we currently call "football" against each other. These contests became progressively more and more popular, and the people playing them progressively resembled regular students less and less.
But as college football became more and more popular, we never chose to examine why it exists. Instead, we invented an organization to regulate and preserve its existence, something they've done with an extensive series of rules and regulations. These rules are often arbitrary, occasionally unfair, and, in rare instances, the rules are actually obeyed by the schools they are meant to govern.
Amongst all these schools, Northwestern football is perhaps the model example of one that has done things as the NCAA wants things to be done. I don't say this as a Northwestern fan, but as an objective observer.
Northwestern graduates the vast majority of its student-athletes, despite the already rigorous demands for Northwestern students. It hasn't been charged with committing a major NCAA violation, one of the few Division I schools of which that is true. Its student-athletes are rarely criminally charged -- we still have to go back to 2009, when one player had a BB gun, which is legal almost every place besides Evanston. We can't recall any instance of Northwestern being accused of recruiting shadiness, with the possible exception of NU nearly signing a 16th player in a class with 15 spots this year, which did not come to pass.
Many have pointed out that this makes Northwestern the worst place for a union groundswell. And perhaps this is true. It is tough for a kid who graduated in a program that graduates everybody from a rigorous academic institution to argue that academics comes second, and a Northwestern lawyer is hammering him on that logical incongruity.
It's true. Kain Colter is the supposedly perfect kid, at the supposedly perfect school. That may make this an awful test case.
But Kain's participation here is an indicator of the incredibly broken nature of the sport we choose to be fans of. This is the reckoning of college football: The perfect kid at the perfect school is sitting on stage and swearing to tell the truth. And what he's saying requires a labor board and a team of lawyers to say whether he fits something he's supposed to be the ideal of. If Northwestern is wrong, nobody is right.