By Chris Emma,
EVANSTON, Ill. (CBS) — Northwestern football coach Pat Fitzgerald sees linebacker Collin Ellis as the “Ragin’ Cajun with a crazy look in his eyes,” a true and tested leader on the Wildcats’ defense. He’s a punishing tackler with a knack for the clutch.
Yet, away from the football field with the helmet off, Ellis is a soft-spoken, super intelligent college kid, the type who gives Northwestern’s athletes such a good name. Faced with the incredibly daunting task of voting for a players’ union — one that could potentially break the NCAA’s current model — Ellis sounded informed as can be.
On April 25, Northwestern’s scholarship football players will vote on the potential formation of a union, the first of its kind in college athletics. The vote’s results won’t be revealed until appeals are heard from the College Athlete’s Players Association and Northwestern, a process in Washington that will last for months.
The explanations from Ellis and several other Wildcats detail why this movement will be shot down.
“It’s not worth risking what I love here, the people that I love, hurting relationships or creating any void between us, members of the team, members of the community, alumni, for a minute chance to make change at the grander level,” Ellis said Saturday after Northwestern’s final spring practice.
Ellis isn’t alone with such sentiments. According to Northwestern quarterback Trevor Siemian, “a good portion of the team” is in agreement that voting for a union isn’t the way to go.
Northwestern is simply the wrong test case for a union in college athletics, one that would rid the “student-athlete” model and make football players be recognized as employees. Sure, the football program has an invaluable scholarship offered to these athletes for free, plus powerful academic benefits, a support system at each level of the university and countless other offerings. But that won’t make the difference in this vote.
Trust is the key to Northwestern’s tight-knit chemistry. It starts in the recruiting process, in which Fitzgerald and his staff go the extra mile to find the right guys. There’s a close bond between teammate and teammate, teammate and coach. It has been tested throughout the process of evaluating a players’ union, but it won’t be broken.
This is why the movement will be voted no.
“The biggest thing is players don’t want to go against Fitz, and go against their school, the university as a whole,” linebacker Jimmy Hall said.
When former Northwestern quarterback and captain Kain Colter approached teammates about the process of unionization, it was presented as the program going against the flawed NCAA structure. As the battle in a Chicago board room waged on, with CAPA fighting for its right to vote, it grew ugly.
While Colter made his case stronger for the National Labor Review Board, he was hurting the support needed from his former Northwestern teammates. Colter’s testimony turned into an attack on the university and its football program. This wasn’t what the players wanted.
The Wildcats were willing to fight for the greater good of college football — a seat at the bargaining table, guaranteed scholarships, medical benefits and so much more. Instead, the attacks on Northwestern reaffirmed for many players how good they have it.
“We thought it was going to be martyring ourselves for other schools that don’t have it as good as we do,” Ellis said. “I thought the intent of the team was a great intent, in that we were trying to make change within the NCAA. Now, we’re starting to see this wouldn’t be the way to make change in the NCAA, because it will only directly affect us here at Northwestern.”
While sworn testimony grew ugly in downtown Chicago, the re-evaluation began in Evanston. Players began to turn against the union, viewing it as negative for the program. Colter’s case went against Fitzgerald, their trusted leader. He’s the guy who went into their living room and built a trust, welcoming each player into Northwestern’s “football family,” as it’s termed.
Facts were revealed, too. Could unionization risk loss of a scholarship, cause taxation for new employees or create havoc for a status quo that’s so strong at Northwestern? When this process was first brought to the Wildcats, these facts weren’t made available. Many felt misled. Yet, they still signed the cards. One of those guilty was Siemian, now the most outspoken “No” vote on the team.
“Shame on me for not gathering as much information as I could’ve to make a decision like that,” Siemian said. “It’s one of those things you’ve got to look at from 10,000 different angles and make a decision that’s right.”
Northwestern isn’t against change by any means. In fact, it was the very first school to offer guaranteed four-year scholarships to its athletes and one of the few to offer a $2,000 cost of attendance stipend during the brief window in 2012 which the NCAA made it available.
However, the NCAA removed this stipend after a short run, preventing football players from receiving it on their signing day. Many Northwestern athletes, including several men’s basketball players, benefit from this brief offering.
Fitzgerald has spoken strongly against a union but supports his players’ efforts for change. He has until April 24 to politic against it, but he can’t make threats for “Yes” votes. That’s not Fitzgerald’s style, though. He has left the door to his office open for questions and is prepared to give honest answers for either side. It’s all about that trust built in recruiting.
“I’m very proud of our guys stepping up for raising national issues, but that’s not what this is about,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s my continued education to the guys — there are mechanisms and educating them on what they are. I’m incredibly proud of them, and I believe there are mechanisms for change. It’s been well documented that I’m an advocate for change, I just don’t believe a union is the way to go.”
The Wildcats’ coach isn’t the only one preaching this. Many Northwestern players — likely an overwhelming majority — are prepared to vote “No” to unionizing. The crazy-eyed ragin’ Cajun linebacker represents what so many teammates feel.
“Everybody’s intent is with the best of heart,” Ellis said. “Everybody is trying to create change in a positive way for student-athletes. In that respect, I’m proud of everybody — I’m proud of Kain and what they’re trying to accomplish. However, I’m not willing to sacrifice what I have here in order for possible change.”
Chris Emma covers the college sports scene for CBS Chicago. Follow him on Twitter @CEmmaScout.