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Union Storm Ravages Northwestern's Spring Practice


The unionization issue has been a significant distraction for Pat Fitzgerald and Northwestern this spring. Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Images.
The unionization issue has been a significant distraction for Pat Fitzgerald and Northwestern this spring. Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Images.

“There's a storm coming, Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits, you're all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.” — The Dark Knight Rises

A storm hit the final Northwestern spring practice, forcing the remainder of the action inside. The Batman flick may as well have been a metaphor for the large-living institution that left so little for the athletes.

Perhaps Kain Colter’s push to unionize the athletes wouldn’t be as controversial if Northwestern wasn’t coming off a supremely disappointing 5-7 2013 season. I say this because the Northwestern players, fans, administrators and coaches were already in a bad mood after last year. Now, in a critical season for the future of the program, this happens.

I’ve made my views clear on social media and on this very website: What Kain Colter and CAPA are doing is brave and I applaud them. But the movement has thrown the program into disarray, causing many former (and current) Northwestern players to speak up against it. The united front is gone. 

From the moment Pat Fitzgerald took over as head coach in 2006, he incubated a culture of loyalty to the “Wildcat Way.” It made for some boring interviews, sure. When everyone is on message, there’s not much for the media to work with. But the “Wildcat Way” got results, beginning with the 9-4 season in 2008 and culminating with the Gator Bowl victory on New Year's day 2013.

This program has been squeaky clean under Fitzgerald, but due to the NLRB hearings, NU has faced more scrutiny than an NCAA investigation. Honestly, I think it’s held up well in the national media. But everyone is restless, knowing that even after the unionization vote, there is a long way to go.

Regardless, NU is trying to convince us that the union controversy will bring the team closer together.

All you have to do is watch the interviews — this is a stressful situation for everyone, especially Fitzgerald. Fitz stared vacantly at a reporter when asked how he personally was preparing for the players to vote “yes” on unionization. He’s anti-union but doesn’t have much of a choice in the matter. Neither does his employer. NU has to challenge the unionization efforts because if they don’t they could be in violation of NCAA bylaws.

The players thought this was going to be Northwestern vs. the NCAA, but it's clearly a Northwestern civil war.

The spring game this year played out behind closed doors and at public hearings, not on the field. How will that impact the on-field performance in 2014? If they play poorly, will it be due to the union issue distracting them? If they perform well, will it be because the union issue brought them together? Those on each side will push their respective narratives.

In any other year, the injuries on the defensive line, or the pressure facing quarterback Trevor Siemian as the senior leader on offense, or the return of Venric Mark would dominate the headlines. This year, actual football talk has been a sidenote.

Where this situation goes from here, no one knows. Uncertainty is not something Fitzgerald, or any football coach, likes. But for years, highly paid coaches, administrators and conference officials have been living large while the players generating the millions of dollars in revenue haven’t received much beyond an athletic scholarship.

Now the storm is coming. Batten down the hatches.