By Chris Emma-
ROSEMONT, Ill. (CBS) — One year ago in a cushy hotel conference room, Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips spoke of the reasons he was losing sleep. Meeting the media at the Big Ten’s athletic directors’ meetings last year, he proclaimed sustaining stability in his programs kept him tossing and turning at night.
A different, much greater matter has Phillips’ athletic department at the forefront now. Northwestern’s football players recently voted on whether to unionize, an unprecedented action that could reform the NCAA’s governing structure.
Conducting his first public interviews on the topic Tuesday, Phillips said there’s no angst or sleep being lost.
“I’m really at peace,” Phillips said to reporters gathered in Rosemont. “I’ve been at peace with this thing since the very beginning.
“I wouldn’t call it angst. That’s what a place like Northwestern does. It creates this independent thinking.”
With Evanston representing the epicenter for a historic movement, Phillips has plenty of concerns on his plate. His claim of a peaceful mind must be a bluff, because Northwestern could see the formation of a union that would compromise the “student-athlete” model, something Phillips truly values.
Ever since former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter raised this issue to the public, Phillips and football coach Pat Fitzgerald have expressed pride in the effort for change. Still, this direction is something they are strongly against.
Unionization is an idea that Northwestern — both at an administrative and athletic department level — greatly opposes. With each passing litigation and decision on the matter comes an official statement from university lawyers, well doctored to represent what the administration believes. Phillips had yet to speak openly on the issue until Tuesday, when he was an open book.
“It goes against all we believe is right in the landscape of college athletics,” Phillips insisted.
During the first day of the Big Ten’s meetings in Rosemont, the elephant in the room loomed larger than ever. The NCAA is operating in the wrong, and reform is needed. There was detailed collaboration on unionization by the conference’s athletic directors, but then the discussion turned to alternatives.
Going against the grain of a true union, Phillips has a plan of his own.
The incoming president of the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics, Phillips would work to give student-athletes a vote and a voice in making change in the current governing model. It would be structured within the existing national Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC).
By forming a vote within SAAC, all college athletes — not just football players — would receive one of a potential union’s greatest benefits, a voice in important NCAA issues, but without making players school employees.
Some of the primary matters that Phillips has pitched for reform include a welfare issues, safety concerns and cost of attendance. These decisions have been made by the suits in board rooms. Historically, student-athletes haven’t had a true say.
“They’re living the experience,” Phillips said. “Why wouldn’t we listen to them? They know more than we do about their day-to-day experiences as student-athletes. So, I think you’re seeing that come together in a really positive way. I want to be a part of that change, and I’m going to be a part of that change.”
In the current landscape of college athletics, Phillips has been one of the greatest advocates for change. When the NCAA offered stipends for its athletes, Northwestern was the first Big Ten school to extend the offer. It was also a leader in offering four-year scholarships, one of the primary issues the College Athletes Players Association movement is pushing for.
By taking a leadership role among the nation’s college athletic directors, Phillips will be at the front of the fight.
“We need some people championing those kinds of changes and reforms at the national level, and I’m very confident we can get there,” Phillips said.
Phillips is a firm believer in the “student-athlete” model, and it’s something ever so important at Northwestern, the battleground of a union discussion that could revoke it all.
This is why Northwestern’s athletic director is so adamantly against his football players unionizing. It’s not the direction he believes in. However, change is coming to college athletics, and Phillips hopes it takes an alternative form. In fact, he hopes to be the movement’s leader.
“The hope and the goal is that all of this can lead to a better destination for college athletics,” he said. “That’s a good thing.”
Should a night arrive where college athletes have their say and the governing model represents all parties fairly, Phillips will truly sleep well.
Chris Emma covers the college sports scene for CBS Chicago. Follow him on Twitter @CEmmaScout.