Joe’s Corner: Player Unionization and Northwestern’s Image Problem

In this week’s edition of Joe’s Corner, WNUR co-Sports Director Joe Misulonas examines the push by Northwestern players for union recognition and how it may negatively impact Northwestern football.

When Kain Colter and other Northwestern football players initially petitioned for union recognition, I was skeptical. On one hand, I believed the intentions of the players were noble. Athletes deserve the power to negotiate with universities, and considering the university makes money off their skills and abilities, they’re entitled to certain protections. However, I was concerned that unionization may pave the path toward athlete compensation, an issue that I vacillate between ambivalent and staunchly opposed.

However, last week’s National Labor Relations Board hearings exposed a problem that I did not consider: the airing of Northwestern’s dirty laundry.

Northwestern football is different than other football programs. The academic standards are higher, very few of our athletes will play the sport professionally, and the university itself is seen as one where athletics are a less salient factor toward school identity than most. For these reasons, Northwestern football is somewhat at a disadvantage.

However, in the recent years under Pat Fitzgerald, the program seemed to turn a corner. The team enjoyed successful seasons, making several bowl trips and winning last year’s Gator Bowl. Couple this success with stellar academics, and Northwestern became an attractive university for recruits. Northwestern became a school where athletics were not as high-pressure as an Ohio State or Michigan, but could still put out a great product and the players would earn quality degrees. Northwestern may have been playing the game differently, but they were doing it well.

Last week’s NLRB hearings exposed Northwestern as exhibiting many of the traits of traditional football programs. Adam Rittenberg of ESPN.com listed some of Colter’s complaints of the team forcing athletics over academics. Those include: Not allowing players take certain classes that could conflict with practices or other football responsibilities (Colter claims the program dissuaded him from pursuing a pre-med degree), mandatory training table attendance that comes out of athletes’ stipend checks, players needing permission from coaches before heading home, and possible violations to the NCAA hours requirement (some “voluntary” workouts that didn’t count against NCAA limits may not have been so optional).

I’m fairly confident that if you were to ask former Michigan players about Colter’s complaints, they would be able to think up much worse. I’m convinced the major football powerhouses put more pressure on players to avoid certain classes and activities than Northwestern does. But therein lies the problem: None of these other schools are bringing dragged in front of a government panel. In order to make the case for unionization, the College Athletes Players Association needed to air some dirty laundry. And unfortunately for Northwestern, those dirty socks are a purple hue.

Northwestern is in somewhat of a PR crisis. Certain negative aspects of the program are coming to light, and as long as the unionization spotlight remains, Northwestern will have to deal with those issues. For instance, we now know the university and Colter are clashing over medical bills for Colter’s ankle injury. How would it look for the program if it came out that Colter has to foot the bills? Not good at all.

The question is how big of a crisis is this and how will Northwestern respond. I doubt this will affect the success of the program. Recruits may not like what they’re reading about Northwestern, but they have to be aware that things are probably the same or the worse at other schools. The reasons for coming to Northwestern (stellar academics, on-field success, etc.) haven’t changed. The only thing that’s changed is the program’s been exposed for operating in the same vein as all others.

Northwestern, and primarily Pat Fitzgerald, will have to respond to these hearings in a meaningful way. If the unionization fight continues, these issues won’t go away. And if NLRB rules in favor of Colter and CAPA comes into existence, then the power dynamics of the relationship between the university and the players will change. It would be wise for the program to begin trying to correct and improve the concerns of current players before they’re forced to through union negotiations. It’s always better to enter discussions with positive momentum.

The unionization fight will continue to dog Northwestern athletics. Issues are arising around the program, and questions are being asked that won’t go away after the NLRB makes its decision. Will Northwestern be on the right side of history for player unionization, or will they be viewed as the antagonist? That’s the question the university needs to answer in the coming days, weeks, and months ahead.