Nadkarni: Re-focusing on what union hearing is really about


Rohan Nadkarni, Reporter

Emotions picked up late last week in the Northwestern union hearings.

It started with many former players going public with frustrations about the case, defending coach Pat Fitzgerald and railing against Kain Colter. On Friday, current players made waves by releasing a statement in support of their treatment in Evanston.

The collateral damage of this intra-university fight has led to the messy feelings. But lost in the rising angst of a case that’s extending far longer than expected is what the whole debate is really about.

Can NU football players be considered employees?

That’s the question that will be answered when this is all over. The truth is, mistreatment — or lack thereof — is not relevant to the issue at hand.

When the case reaches the regional director of the Chicago National Labor Relations Board, he won’t be determining if Fitzgerald is a friendly boss or a horrible one. He’ll simply be determining if Fitzgerald is a boss at all.

As the hearings continue, it won’t be important who was brash or angry on the stand. It won’t be important if former player X says he loved his time in college, or if former player Y earned an engineering degree.

Can Colter’s side prove there’s a hierarchal relationship between athletes and coaches? Can they prove scholarships can — not will, can — be removed at the discretion of Fitzgerald’s rules? Can they prove athletics and academics are separate, with the former taking precedence?

These are the questions to focus on as the College Athletes Players Association tries to make its case. As for its goals, CAPA isn’t trying to take down Fitzgerald. It only has a “desire to have a voice,” as the players’ statement reads.

As for a burden of proof, there is none. Though the proceedings are taking place in a fancy court building, the task at hand isn’t like your favorite episode of “Law & Order.”

The hearings are simply a fact-finding mission. Each side will try to put as many facts “on the record” as possible. It’s the job of the hearing officer to make sure each side only includes facts relative to NU football players.

Once all the facts have been collected, the regional director will read through the testimony and make his ultimate decision. And the NLRB is less of a court and more of a policy-making entity. Its job is to set the precedent for future cases.

It makes sense why the case has elicited such strong emotions.

The idea of unions, which have a long, complicated role in this country’s social history, is already a polarizing one. Secrets from the program have been revealed. And it’s hard to grasp the concept of Colter and Fitzgerald testifying against each other, not to mention Fitzgerald testifying against each of his current players who signed union cards.

But as the case barrels forward, it’s important for those following along not to let the outside noise take away from the central issue of whether an employee-employer relationship exists.

It remains to be seen in such a novel case which side has made a more convincing argument. It appeared NU had the upper hand at first, but its lawyers reportedly asked for an extension, presumably because they aren’t yet happy with the case they have put forward.

Nonetheless, it won’t be the emotions from the witnesses on the stand or statements made by former and current players that will influence the final ruling.

It will simply be the facts.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @Rohan_NU