NUsports.com's Skip Myslenski summarizes what the Wildcats had to say after a Saturday morning practice at scenic Lakeside Field.
The clouds broke and the sun shined and, on Saturday, the 'Cats practiced outdoors for the first time this spring. "Fresh air does a lot for your mental well-being, I think, instead of being indoors. All the space, I'm not going to run wild. But some of the guys feel they can just run wild," center Brandon Vitabile would later say. But three days earlier National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) regional director Peter Ohr had announced they would vote on unionizing on April 25, and so even here that ponderous pachyderm dominated their virtual room.
Already, in his postpractice remarks, Pat Fitzgerald had made his position clear. "I believe," he had said then, "it's in their best interest to vote no."
Now, here, Vitabile was asked how he was going to vote.
"I'm in support of Coach Fitz," he said. "Ever since I met him six years ago when he came to my house and sat at my table with my dad, everything he told me came true. He never lied to me, never did me wrong. I fully support Coach Fitz and I've trust that he's always acted in my best interest and will continue to do that. That's how I feel about the entire university and the athletic department. . . I've had a great experience here. I wouldn't change anything about my decision to come to Northwestern. I don't think there's a better place in college football to have played. I'm grateful to have the opportunity to play here and to play for Coach Fitz."
And does he have a sense on how the vote will go?
"I think," said Vitabile, "guys are doing a good job of getting as much information as possible, and I think a lot of guys feel the same as I do. That Coach Fitz has done everything in his power and has been a voice for us."
Has he made up his mind on how he's going to vote, we later asked running back Venric Mark.
"I don't know if I've made up my mind," he said. "But I believe that Northwestern does treat us well. And I believe we don't need a third party in between the university or the coaches and us as players. But I do believe the NCAA needs to take heed of what's really going on and understand that things really do need to change."
Back in late March, when Ohr ruled that `Cat football players on athletic scholarship were university employees, they were on spring break, and so it was not until last Wednesday that Fitzgerald spoke to them about this issue. But here, with the date for a vote set, he was legally bound by a series of strictures. He could not make promises contingent on their vote, or threaten action contingent on the same. He could not interrogate them about their feelings, or speculate on what the outcome might produce. So what was his message?
"First he said, you have to vote. That's the biggest thing, make sure you vote," recalled Vitabile. "But make sure you have the information. Ask questions. You're doing yourself and your teammates a disservice if you don't get all the information. As much as both sides (are) against each other, Coach Fitz really expressed that he wants us to be smart young men and get the information. In any election, that's what you have to do."
"My message was to educate them," recalled Fitzgerald himself. "I'm sticking to the facts and the things that I know over (the) eight years (that he has been head coach) that we've and I've accomplished and our program's accomplished and our athletic administration has accomplished and our university has accomplished without any third party being involved. Our guys have open lines of communication to me, they've expressed that to me."
And why is he anti-union?
"I just believe it's in the young men's best interest," he said. "Right now, we have all great protocols in place and we haven't been forced to do that by any third party. I'm not going to belabor all the points. . . (But) I believe we're the best player-development staff in the country. I know our young men believe in that. Now it's our time to educate them. We have to educate them to help them understand the whole aspect of what this decision is. That's what their parents entrusted us to do, that's what they entrusted us to do and we'll continue to work with them to do that."
That is how it went Saturday for Fitzgerald, who is legally permitted to state his case and outline the reasons for his stance. So he was, in reality, no mere football coach here. He was instead a passionate advocate for one side of a roiling issue. "I can't speculate. The other side (the College Athletes Players Association) can speculate whatever they want," he would say at one point. "I will deal in facts. To me, it's about trust. This is not a national issue, that's my understanding with the NLRB. This is that organization (CAPA) against Northwestern, and I have to educate guys on that. That's what we'll stick to, the facts."
"I'm getting inundated with questions (from players)," he would add at another. "At this time, I'd prefer to keep that between the guys. If they, they've got the freedom to talk. They've got freedom of speech. That's the great thing about being an American. And I hope that they do. We're encouraging them to. We're encouraging them to speak to their parents. We're encouraging them to understand and do the research and get the facts, not to listen to speculation and innuendo and all that stuff. Get the facts. I'll stand upon what we've done over this eight-year period. I've been here for 14 (including his time as an assistant), plus four years as a student-athlete. That's 18 years on this campus. I believe in what I was taught as a student-athlete here. I believe in what this great game has taught me. I believe in what I'm able to do then as an expert to teach young men how to become men. I've got great pride in that and I look forward to continue to educate our guys."
"I'll stand upon the eight years I've had here as the head football coach, and my long tenure here as an assistant coach," he would finally say. "I know our guys trust me, I believe that. That's what they've expressed to me. And I think I've been pretty clear with my support, I've always been an advocate for change for student-athletes if it's going to have a positive impact. . . You can do all the research and Google my name and however you've got to use your search engines to find (that) I've always been an advocate for student-athletes because I've been there. I've been a student-athlete, and I'm where I'm at today because of the experiences I've had, and I'm not going to apologize for that. I'm very proud of that."
The university has until Wednesday to appeal Ohr's decision (that the players are employees) to the five-person NLRB in Washington, D.C. This it will surely do. Then, on the 25th, the Cats will vote and their ballots will be impounded until that body rules on the appeal. If it overturns Ohr, those ballots are moot. If it upholds Ohr, those ballots are counted. If a majority of them are against joining the union, CAPA could potentially call for another vote 12 months later. And if a majority of them are in favor of doing that?
"People don't know. Nobody knows. You don't know, I don't know, no side knows what will happen," Brandon Vitabile will say. "We know what has happened in the past and how it has been. The four years I've had here have been great. Every year, we've improved. Everything that's done is for our best interest. If it's going to help, we're going to do it, we're going to find a way to do it. That's something that Dr. (Jim) Phillips (the athletic director) is committed to and something Coach Fitz is committed to and all of our assistant coaches are committed to. If it's going to help, we're going to do it."