POSTED: 7:35 p.m. HST, Feb 18, 2014
LAST UPDATED: 7:41 p.m. HST, Feb 18, 2014
CHICAGO » Kain Colter, a football recruit, arrived at Northwestern University with dreams of becoming an orthopedic surgeon. But the summer before his freshman year, he said, he was steered away from a chemistry class toward less strenuous options like sociology and African history. He is now pursuing a psychology degree instead of the premed track.
During the 2012 season, after Colter was named the starting quarterback, Northwestern traveled to Ann Arbor, Mich., for a day game against Michigan. The Wildcats made the five-hour trip by bus, had team meetings, held walk-throughs, played the game, met reporters and then returned to campus in Evanston, Ill. According to Colter's "accountable hours" log to ensure he had time for academics, he spent 4 hours, 8 minutes on football activities.
Colter, the leader of the Northwestern football team's petition to form a union, which was filed last month, offered more than four hours of testimony Tuesday afternoon before the National Labor Relations Board. In question is the relationship between academics and football for players — specifically, which comes first and whether these athletes should be classified as students or employees. Colter insisted he was on campus to play football.
"It's truly a job," Colter said. "There's no way around it."
Northwestern graduates 97 percent of football players, the highest among schools in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Lawyers for the university, which argues that its football players do not meet the requirements for a union because they are full-time students, expressed difficulty in understanding why Northwestern was chosen as a test case.
They then painted Colter as a football player who has benefited greatly from his educational experience, and argued that athletics and academics go hand-in-hand.
Colter has a grade point average above 3.0. He was Academic All-Big Ten each year he was eligible. He took classes like Financial Business and Introduction to Neurology. He received tutoring and extra help when he asked for it. He is scheduled to graduate this year, earlier than expected. There could be no truth, Northwestern's lawyers said, to the accusation that he was not permitted to study — and study what he wished.
The hearing was moved from the NLRB's regional office to a larger room in a federal building in downtown Chicago because of increased interest. Tuesday began with Colter fielding questions from John Adam, a lawyer for the College Athletes Players Association, the newly formed group seeking to represent Northwestern players in collective bargaining.
Colter, who exhausted his athletic eligibility last season, laid out in great detail his experiences during what he called the yearlong college football season. He spoke of the time demands, the control exerted by coaches and administrators and the academic sacrifices he said he had to make.
"It makes it hard for you to succeed," Colter said. "You can't ever reach your academic potential with the time demands. You have to sacrifice, and we're not allowed to sacrifice football."
Training camp before the season, Colter said, requires 50 to 60 hours per week and 14-hour days, on occasion. The in-season commitment is 40 to 50 hours each week. Summer workouts require a return to campus only a few weeks after the end of the previous school year. Colter said he was never allowed to schedule a class before 11 a.m. because of practice, which made it difficult to take the courses he needed to continue as a premed student.
The idea was to cast Colter and his teammates as employees, with responsibilities to match. The compensation, argued Colter, is an athletic scholarship, valued by Northwestern at $76,000 per year. And, he continued, because it can be revoked year to year in some cases, there is a quid pro quo to deliver on the football field. (When Colter was recruited, he received a one-year renewable scholarship, but later he was given a multiyear scholarship.)
When he was cross-examined by university lawyers, Colter was pressed about whether his scholarship money dedicated to tuition was taxed. And he was asked whether he received retirement and paid time-off benefits like other Northwestern employees. He said he did not.
Beyond the employee-student construction, there were other logistical questions raised by Northwestern's lawyers. The College Athletes Players Association does not seek to represent non-scholarship football players or any athletes who do not play football or basketball, including women, which raises issues surrounding Title IX, the federal law that requires equal spending on men's and women's sports.
The hearing continues Wednesday and is expected to last all week.
The players' group has another witness to call, and Northwestern will call several experts to try to rebut Colter. The regional NLRB office here will then make a ruling, most likely within a month of the hearing's conclusion. That decision can be appealed to the federal board in Washington.
Colter, meanwhile, will head to the NFL combine in Indianapolis this weekend.