EVANSTON, Ill. – Northwestern football coach Pat Fitzgerald sided with his university against the formation of a players union in his first public comments Saturday, repeating what he already told his team: "I believe it's in their best interests to vote no."
Fitzgerald addressed the issue for the first time with his squad Wednesday, a week after Peter Ohr, regional director for the National Labor Relations Board, ruled that Northwestern's scholarship football players were "employees." That decision entitled players to conduct a secret-ballot vote on forming a union to pursue collective bargaining with the school, a move that could significantly alter the structure of college sports — especially big revenue-producers like football and basketball.
Fitzgerald spoke at the end of a spring practice session at the school's lakefront facility, alongside a plot of land being developed for a $225 million athletic center. He also said that while he's constrained in what he can discuss regarding a union, he sent players and their parents a letter stating his position before addressing the team in person.
"All this can be handled with communication. It's about trust," Fitzgerald said about issues — including improved medical care, practice schedules and others — raised by the College Athletes Players Association, the group seeking to unionize players.
So far, CAPA has not addressed paying players on scholarship.
"I just do not believe we need a third party between our players and our coaches, staff and administrators. ... Whatever they need, we will get them," Fitzgerald said.
The NLRB set April 25 for the players vote. Only players currently on scholarship and participating in football activities will cast ballots, totaling around 70 current members of the squad.
The university has until Wednesday to ask the full, five-member NLRB in Washington to review Ohr's decision. If the full board upholds Ohr's ruling, Northwestern could also challenge that ruling in federal appeals court.
Fitzgerald cited his own experience at Northwestern, covering 18 years, to make his case. He played linebacker at the school, then served as an assistant coach and took over the program in July 2006, after the sudden death of his mentor, Randy Walker. Fitzgerald said the school had always been receptive to players' needs, including his own, and that there was already a structure in place to pursue many of the issues CAPA raised.
"I've always been an advocate of change for student-athletes," Fitzgerald said, "if it has positive impact."
A handful of players who lingered after practice said they were inclined to vote "no," though senior center Brandon Vitabile added, "We're all smart guys. We're open to hearing things and discussing things." Like Fitzgerald, he was reluctant to characterize the team's deliberations so far.
But quarterback Trevor Siemian said flatly, "I don't support it."
The fifth-year senior is the front-runner to replace graduating quarterback Kain Colter, who took a lead role in seeking to organize players at the school. CAPA, which is headed by former UCLA linebacker Ramogi Huma, has provided support for similar efforts in recent years.
"I don't think a union is the answer for my team or my university," Siemian said.
Fitzgerald was asked whether recruiting wouldn't be easier at Northwestern if a union were organized and able to secure additional benefits for players.
"I'm not allowed to speculate," he replied tersely.
Tim Waters, the political director for the United Steelworkers Union, which has provided support to efforts to unionize players, told The New York Times he was "disappointed after coach Fitzgerald's initial reaction of supporting these guys" and predicted players would vote to support the union.