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Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald testifies against own players in unionization case

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Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald (USA Today Sports)

Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald was called to the witness stand on Friday to testify against his players who have lobbied to form a union. According to USA Today, Fitzgerald said that Northwestern and its football program do everything they can in order to produce a worthwhile and positive experience for the athletes.

“We take pride in developing our men to be the best they can be in everything they choose to do,” Fitzgerald said. “Our goals are simple: We want to graduate 100% of our players and prepare them for life, and we want to compete for championships.”

Lawyers representing the College Athletes Players Association have compared the player-coach relationship to an employee-employee relationship because coaches have the ability to control a player’s scholarship and could even pull a player’s scholarship.

When that issue was raised, Fitzgerald testified that such instances where scholarships get pulled are rare even after he read a team rule while on the stand that stated that he is "allowed to do so if players break team rules.”

Another Northwestern team rule states that players can be suspended for up to a season if they “embarrass” the team, but Fitzgerald said that would only happen if a player “egregiously violated” team rules.

With Northwestern not considered to be a powerhouse school in football, a lawyer representing the school expressed confusion as to why the school is the “test case” for players unionizing. Fitzgerald expressed similar sentiments and said that “his credentials prove he puts academics first.”

With that stated, CAPA still maintains that they are not accusing Northwestern of any misconduct. Their stance is that coaches have the ability to treat players unfairly and players have no representation in such instances.

USA Today’s Kevin Trahan writes:

“Essentially, they would argue, a football coach with the ability to pull compensation — the scholarship — is like a boss in an employee-employer relationship. And just because your boss is cool, that doesn't mean he's not your boss.”

Another CAPA lawyer drew attention to comments Fitzgerald made last year to the Chicago Sun-Times where he said that being a student-athlete is a “full-time job.”

“It’s a full-time job from a responsibility standpoint,” Fitzgerald replied.

Another one of CAPA’s main arguments is that student-athletes are different than the average student – they are recruited by coaches, not an academic entity. Northwestern Dead of Undergraduate Admissions Christopher Watson countered that by saying that coaches cannot get permission for admission of anyone into the school. Athlete or not, they must still meet certain academic requirements.

“It’s the same as it is with any applicant,” he said. “We have the final say over who’s admitted to the university.”

The hearing is due to continue on Tuesday, and once the proceedings have been completed, the case will be reviewed by the regional director of the National Labor Relations Board.

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