Skip to main content

In a sticky situation, Pat Fitzgerald comes out looking cleaner than ever before

I hope Pat Fitzgerald is flexible, because college athletes' pro-union lawyer attempted to twist him into a pretzel on Friday. 

 Over the last couple weeks, former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter has led the charge - along with the organization for which he serves as figurehead, College Athletes Protection Association (CAPA) - to give student-athletes more rights. They aren't asking for money (yet). Right now, the discussion has centered on full coverage for players' medical procedures and "due process" regarding the removal of a player from his scholarship. Mostly, CAPA is arguing for a place at the bargaining table, and those are the first two talking points. 

The case has made its way to the National Labor Relations Board in Chicago, with CAPA arguing that college athletes are less student-athletes and more employees, and Northwestern maintaining that they are not. On Friday, Wildcats head coach Pat Fitzgerald was brought in for cross-examination. 

As with any lawyer worth his retainer fee, CAPA's attorney paged through Fitzgerald's old quotes in an attempt to use them against him. Case in point, last summer when, in an attempt to praise his players, he referred to playing for Northwestern as a "full-time job". The lawyer pounced. 

Fitzgerald retorted by saying: A) any time a player puts in beyond the NCAA-mandated maximum is purely voluntary, B) Northwestern insists academics comes before football, to the point of allowing players to leave practice early while providing a meal and transportation from practice to class, and C) allowing a player to miss the Nebraska game last season to catch up academically.

Next, CAPA's legal team pressed Fitzgerald on the process of throwing players off the team. One would assume this wouldn't be much of a problem at a school like Northwestern, and Fitzgerald ducked the bullet like Johnny Manziel dodging a blitzing linebacker.

This is, quite obviously, an extremely controversial and divisive issue across college sports, and inside Northwestern's own locker room. Colter's former teammates have distanced themselves from this fight. 

It's a very, very difficult tightrope for a coach to talk. He has to defend his program without coming off too hard, and to encourage his players' freedom while still remaining in control of his locker room back in Evanston. Fitzgerald did all that while managing to make the Northwestern football program look better than it did when he took the stand. 

No coach ever wants to take the stand in from of the National Labor Relations Board for cross-examination in a case with national coverage. But if someone must do it, the pro-establishment side of this debate could not have had a better representative on the stand than Fitzgerald.