All the way up on the 13th floor at the Former Dirksen Federal Building in Chicago, Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter stood in a courtroom. He was there to testify as part of the ongoing quest to implore the National Labor Relations Board to recognize scholarship athletes on college football and basketball teams as employees.
The College Athletes Players Association (CAPA) is representing him.
While Colter repeatedly emphasized his love for Northwestern throughout the hearing, he still believes that the University treats the student athletes unfairly.
“I believe the players need a voice and they need somebody bargaining for them over their protections, their rights and everything that goes about football,” Colter said.
Moreover, he made it clear that he isn’t leading this effort to receive additional financial aid from the University.
“We’re not going to jeopardize our players’ eligibility,” he said. “We still have to abide by the NCAA rules and Big Ten rules.”
Instead, he believes that achieving collective bargaining status with Northwestern is essential for other reasons. Protection from concussion is just one example.
According to a study by the Sports Legacy Institute, 75 percent of college football concussions occur in practice. Colter believes unionization would allow the players to demand less contact in practice. As the system currently stands, players simply do as they are told.
“There are a lot of great things you can achieve for the players [without going through the NCAA],” he said.
He also believes NU doesn’t accommodate student athletes enough to help them reach their academic potential. While CAPA attorney John Adam questioned him, it was clear how much work Colter put in both on and off the field on any given week. During the football season, which normally stretches from late August to early December, he claimed to be doing football–related activities for 40 to 50 hours a week.
Thus, during fall quarter, the team has very little time to focus on academics.
“We spent a lot more time dedicating ourselves to football, performing football activities than academics,“ Colter said. “It just shows that we are brought there to play football, that’s our first priority. We must do our football part and then, if you can, fit in academics.”
Due to early practice times football players like Colter, who wanted to enter the medical profession, were discouraged to do so as freshmen because the class times conflicted with practice. Key contributors such as Colter couldn’t miss the latter, under any circumstance whatsoever. Colter’s hectic schedule forced him to drop his pre–med track because it was too much to handle (but he will still graduate at the end of this quarter with a psychology degree).
He’s not the only player on the team who had to adjust his academic goals because of football. In fact, when the outgoing seniors addressed their teammates at the end of the year, there was one common sentiment that they shared with everyone else.
“The number one thing said was, ‘Due to time demands you can’t ever reach your academic potential. You are merely just surviving,’” Colter said.
Not everyone in the courtroom was supportive of Colter’s mission, though. Alex Barbour and Anna Wermuth, who are lawyers representing the University, were there to dissuade the NLRB from recognizing the employment status of football and basketball athletes. (Colter did mention that if the board recognized CAPA, the union would look to include athletes from other sports in the future).
Barbour said NU players, unlike student athletes at many other universities, receive things like free tutoring and personal and career help, along with a sound education. He added statements like “academics always trumps athletics at Northwestern,” “the student athletes are first and foremost students” and “collective bargaining is impractical and would simply not work,” to his argument.
Wermuth, on the other hand, spent time questioning Colter about his relationship with the university. She asked if his experience on the football team helped him acquire an internship at Goldman–Sachs, or if he gained any leadership skills as a member of the Leadership Council on the football team, but he repeatedly denied the team’s impact on his life outside of football. Nonetheless, she managed to stifle Colter just enough to win some small concessions for the University.
As the first day of the hearing came to a close, it was evident that both sides had scored minor victories, but ultimately it will up to the NLRB to decide the fate of one of the biggest cases in NCAA history.