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I like Pat Fitzgerald. The Northwestern football coach is smart, charismatic and possesses real leadership qualities. He's been a consistent, underappreciated winner at a place where winning is not automatic.
And I like Paul Johnson, for the simple fact that the Georgia Tech coach isn't afraid to be a football nonconformist in a copycat world. Almost nobody still plays the game the way his teams do, and he's fine with that.
But I don't like the way either man has handled the small and utterly benign "APU" statements by players on their teams last Saturday. To me, their reactions seem to exemplify the worst college football coaching tendencies: control for control's sake, a tendency toward groupthink, an aversion to individual expression, and a rigid response to a challenge to authority.
If you missed it, APU stands for "All Players United," and a handful of college football players nationwide wrote those letters on wrist tape, towels or other gear for their games Sept. 21. Among those who did so: the starting quarterbacks for undefeated Northwestern (Kain Colter) and undefeated Georgia Tech (Vad Lee).
The movement, if it can be called that at this embryonic stage, springs from the National College Players Association and its head, Ramogi Huma. The goal is to raise awareness of player-rights issues such compensation, concussion treatment and the ongoing O'Bannon lawsuit against the NCAA, in which athletes are seeking to be paid for use of their likeness to promote college sports. It is the hottest big-picture topic in college sports, even landing Johnny Manziel on the cover of Time Magazine beside the headline, "It's Time To Pay College Athletes."
Within that context, the APU protest was limited but significant. It was the first organized, in-game athlete dissent I can remember on the collegiate level. It did not disrupt the competition in any way.
But the movement may have been squashed at two elite academic schools that should value critical thinking and a free exchange of ideas. Since, you know, those kinds of things are hallmarks of the college experience.
(Unless you're a high-profile athlete, it seems.)
It's safe to say that neither Johnson nor Fitzgerald was thrilled with his quarterback's exercise of free speech. When asked, both alluded to it being detrimental to the team dynamic.
Said Johnson this week: "Our team, we had a talk about, 'Hey, if it's going to be a team thing, we need to talk about it as a team. We need to take a team vote and if everybody is in agreement or agrees, then OK, we can talk about what we can do.'
"But you can't just have six guys say 'OK this is important to me and I'm going to do this,' and the other 79 not know about it."
Fitzgerald said he discussed the APU statement with Colter, who at Big Ten media days in July was outspoken about players needing to have a stronger voice for their own well-being. Fitzgerald refused to divulge the nature of that talk, or any conclusion the two reached.
"Kain and I had a discussion, and he and I will keep it between the two of us," he said. "From the standpoint of an opportunity to have a teachable moment, it was a great one for him and our ballclub. What we try to do here is keep things in a team context. When you decide to do something like that, I think it's a teachable and coachable moment."
Reading between the lines, the teaching and coaching seems to have been: "Don't go off the team-context reservation like that again, young man."
It is unlikely that a team would be in unanimous support of an APU statement. Opinions vary widely on the controversial issue of paying players, and many scholarship athletes undoubtedly would prefer the safe haven of saying or doing nothing. Which is why using unanimity as the veto card in this situation is a perfect dodge for coaches.
They quite likely can get what they want – players silenced and back in line, voiceless cogs in the machine – without looking like dictators who squelched free speech.
I wonder if the same coaches who desire unanimity on this issue felt the same when it was trendy for players to use eyeblack as personal billboards.
It was no issue for Reggie Bush in 2005 to unilaterally write something as facile and non-threatening as "619" – his hometown area code – on his eyeblack. That kind of individual expression was fine – nobody suggested that the entire USC team needed to write their own area codes on eyeblack, too.
But when a few guys dare to publicly espouse an opinion on an issue of actual substance to the players themselves? Well, then we have a team-unity issue.
Truth be told, this is not just a Fitzgerald-Johnson situation. If the movement spreads this Saturday to other campuses, other coaches will have to deal with it as well -- and their reactions may well mirror the men at Northwestern and Georgia Tech.
This is a topic that makes everyone in authority positions in college sports nervous. From the NCAA offices to conference commissioners to school administrators to coaches – a vast swath of rich white guys, with a sprinkling of diversity thrown in – even the barest hint of a player dissent threatens their power. From that standpoint, the reaction at Northwestern and Georgia Tech is somewhat predictable, if disappointing.
Make no mistake, college athletes should understand player-rights issues. Simply espousing the now-popular notion that they're getting screwed over by The Man without knowing the facts is weak.
Scholarship football players at Northwestern, for example, should know that they're getting a $63,000-a-year education for free at a world-class institution. Many of them were granted an academic exception for admittance into a school that would not have accepted them as a regular student. They're getting all the tutoring help possible – plus top-shelf medical care, nutrition, lodging and athletic instruction. They're big men on campus, enjoying a level of prestige the stars of the elite business and journalism schools never get. And they should know that a Northwestern degree could be a ticket to lifetime prosperity when their playing days are over.
They should also know that Pat Fitzgerald made at least $2.2 million in 2011 as coach of the Wildcats, according to USA Today. And that the school is raking in tens of millions from Big Ten media deals. And that Kain Colter's purple Under Armour No. 2 jersey is selling in the bookstore for $70 a pop – none of which goes into his pocket.
Know all those things, then make a decision about whether something like APU is a cause to join. If so, let the players write three letters on their wrist tape without fear of repercussion.
This is America, and this is college. If he feels so moved, a football player should be able to stand for something more than his team logo – even if his coach doesn't like it.