Northwestern football union stuff: Kain Colter and Pat Fitzgerald are yelling at each other, but neither's the villain

Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

Northwestern's ex-QB and Northwestern's coach are fighting in a labor dispute, and it's ugly -- but neither is the bad guy.

"He's the person in a silly bat costume this city thinly based on New York, but filmed in Chicago to fuel our inferiority complex deserves, but not the person in a silly bat costume we need right now." -- Commissioner James Glassescop, That Movie They Filmed On Lower Wacker Drive

What's the thing less fun than going 1-7 in conference after hitting the top 20 of every college football poll? A drawn-out labor proceeding, where Mommy and Daddy yell at each other.

To write about sports, I learned long ago to see Sports People as just regular people. But I'm still a quaking 18-year-old with a tape recorder when I think about Pat Fitzgerald. He's on the short list as the best player in Northwestern football history and the best coach in Northwestern football history. I generally tune out platitudes from coaches, having seen that damn near 100 percent of them are BS, but when Pat Fitzgerald talks about his passion for Northwestern. Because he's always backed it up. It sorta freaks me out. Nobody should care as much about an institution as Pat Fitzgerald seems to. And Fitzgerald genuinely seems to care about molding young athletes into athletic/academic successes, even as the NCAA forgot about it a long time ago. Suffice it to say, I respect Pat Fitzgerald a lot.

I loved watching Kain Colter play. It was fascinating seeing him grow from a skittish run-only QB to a confident leader, the star QB on the first 10-win Northwestern team in about 170,000 years. His career ended amidst injuries and a team that didn't really use him properly. My main regret is that he wasn't redshirted as a freshman, robbing us of an extra season of Colter. I'm excited to see what the next level brings, as I truly think Colter has the playmaking ability to make an NFL roster at wide receiver.

As part of Colter's testimony, where he's attempting to say Northwestern football players are employees who should be allowed to unionize, Colter said many things about his college experience, which we detailed here. These things were less than savory about Northwestern, as he attempted to show players were there for football, not school.

This did not please Pat Fitzgerald:

This also did not please ex-NU QB Dan Persa and ex-NU wide receiver Jeremy Ebert, as detailed in the Chicago Tribune:

"Everything at Northwestern was handled in a first-class way," the former Wildcats quarterback told the Tribune. "To see it being dragged through the mud, I was pretty upset. There was some unjust criticism, especially for a place that does it so right."
"Northwestern was attacked and portrayed in the wrong way," said Ebert, a receiver who played mainly special teams for the Jaguars last season. "Kain and I are friends. This isn't about me and him. But I want to defend my university."

This also did not please ex-NU running back Mike Trumpy:

This also did not please current NU center Brandon Vitabile, who released a statement to the Tribune.

This also did not please ex-NU linemen Pat Ward and Doug Bartels and ex-NU long snapper John Henry Pace, who were called to the stand Tuesday as witnesses for Northwestern, as Inside NU details.

This also displeased ex-NU QB CJ Bacher, who wrote a damn opus:

The case that CAPA is making about Northwestern Football is an incredibly poor representation of Northwestern Football.

This is not fun. It is not enjoyable to watch Northwestern players bash each other. It is not fun to watch an awesome quarterback and an awesome coach at odds with each other.

However, I feel like it's missing the point a bit.

For starters, having a positive experience does not prevent something from being a job. I have a pretty sweet job. My office has beer in the fridge and I write about sports. But it's a job -- I exchange services for payment. Kain Colter is merely trying to show that playing football at Northwestern is a job, not a facilitation of his academic career.

Secondly: just because Northwestern and Northwestern players are going at it does not mean either is the villain.

I quoted That Movie They Filmed On Lower Wacker Drive up there. In the climactic, conclusive scene of the film, the Person in a Silly Bat Costume convinces Commissioner Glassescop that the City Thinly Based on New York needs to view him as a villain. They both know he's not the villain, but agree that it's best for the city to tarnish the reputation of the Person in a Silly Bat Costume rather than the Guy Who Everybody Thought Was Nice But Wasn't.

Kain Colter's most vicious allegation against Northwestern is that the school's football staff meddled with his academic career, while acknowledging he was still able to achieve a modicum of success. This is skeezy, and could be enough to convince a labor board that he was more employee than student. But it's a molecular deposit in a drop in a scandal bucket at many schools.

The main issue many alumni and Northwestern supporters take is that Kain Colter is sullying Northwestern's program. But I really doubt many outsiders are coming away from this and seeing NU as dirty. In fact, the main issue people looking at the legal details of the case seem to find is that Northwestern was a bad place to start, since Northwestern is far too good to its student-athletes.

Even if everything Colter says is true, Northwestern is still the high-standard program at a prestigious school it has always professed to be. But college football is a virus, and despite our best efforts, Northwestern has displayed some symptoms.

Northwestern is not the bad guy. You know that. I know that. I get the sense Kain Colter knows that.

The bad guy is the NCAA. It's an organization that has made billions off of unpaid students and gone to great lengths creating rules and regulations to protect their ability to continue to make billions off of unpaid students, often at the expense of logic and human decency. And as their legal walls crumble around them, they've made it clear they intend to fight tooth and nail to protect the system rather than compromise.

Northwestern seems to know that the NCAA is the bad guy too. Until these proceedings, Pat Fitzgerald has been downright progressive arguing for player stipends and other player-friendly measures. And in court, the school's lawyers have attempted to show distance between themselves and the NCAA:

"Most of the objectives CAPA is trying to achieve are not even controlled by Northwestern," attorney Alex Barbour said while representing the university. In other words: This is an NCAA issue, not a Northwestern issue.

But right now, in February 2014, Kain Colter is not in a legal position to take action against the NCAA. Other people are doing that. What he can do is what he's doing now: presenting an argument that Northwestern employed him. He hopes to establish that current NU football players are employees, which in turn would go a long way towards arguing football players at every other school in the nation are employees, which would kill the NCAA as it currently exists. Northwestern isn't the bad guy. That's the NCAA. But Colter had to slime Northwestern first.

This appears ugly, and it is. But I don't think Kain Colter is fighting Northwestern because he hates it, and I don't think NU is fighting back at him because they don't want football players to get things they deserve.

What's more important than the fact that we're fighting ourselves is why it's happening. For good things to happen, a player had to chase a school; turn them into a villain. It turned out that person is Kain Colter and that thing is Northwestern. Don't hold that against either.

The ugliness ain't ideal, but progress comes with pain.

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