Fitzgerald testifies at NLRB hearing, citing experience as coach, former player

Alex Putterman, Assistant Sports Editor

Pat Fitzgerald took the stand Friday, looking to refute former quarterback Kain Colter’s claims.

(Updated: Colter begins testimony at second NLRB hearing)

The Northwestern football coach testified Friday morning on the fourth day of the ongoing National Labor Relations Board hearing to determine whether NU football players can be certified as a union.

Fitzgerald was an NU witness, part of the University’s attempt to discredit arguments presented by the College Athletes Players Association.

Under direct questioning from NU lawyers, the coach testified about the program’s focus on “preparing young men for life.” He said education is a priority and players are not prevented from pursuing academic goals.

In 2012, Fitzgerald testified, a player asked to take a week off from football because he was behind on schoolwork. The player was allowed to miss practice for a week and didn’t play in the ensuing game against Nebraska. The next week, he was allowed back with no punishment.

Fitzgerald also said players are allowed to leave practice for class whenever necessary. This contradicted testimony from Colter, who said Tuesday he was behind on his pre-med track because he was prevented from taking classes conflicting with football.

To establish itself as a labor union, CAPA must establish that athletics are more central to players’ experience at NU than academics.

With that in mind, Colter, CAPA’s primary witness, described in his testimony ways football limited his ability to focus on academics. NU used Fitzgerald to create an image of the program as academic-focused.

A former football standout himself during the 1990s, Fitzgerald also spoke from personal experience about life as an NU athlete.

“There is no question I had every opportunity to pursue what I wanted to do, from an academic standpoint and football standpoint,” he testified.

Fitzgerald’s testimony came a day after the hearing officer declared the record “weak” on CAPA’s side, particularly in the area of coach-player relationship. NU calling Fitzgerald to the stand allowed CAPA to shore up aspects of its argument.

During cross-examination, CAPA’s attorney questioned Fitzgerald about disciplinary policies, forcing the coach to admit players can be removed from the program if they “make poor decisions.”

CAPA also reviewed ways the school controls players’ lives in ways it does not for other students, including dictating attire, mandating drug tests and more.

These points — and the establishment of the program hierarchy — helped CAPA present NU football as a company, with various coaches as bosses.

One particularly dramatic moment came when CAPA cited a July 25 article in which Fitzgerald was quoted as calling life as a student-athlete “a full-time job.” The coach confirmed the accuracy of the quote but said he did not remember the context.

In the afternoon, NU called Christopher Watson, dean of undergraduate admissions, to address the University’s application and admission process. Watson testified the protocol is similar for athletes and non-athletes and the department has final say over all admissions decisions.

After a recess following Watson’s testimony, the hearing officer announced the hearing will resume Tuesday. A CAPA attorney said following the hearing it was NU that asked for more time, possibly to call more witnesses.

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Twitter: @AlexPutt02