At 11:30 a.m. Monday morning, lawyers from Northwestern University and the College Athletes Players Association received the call they’d been waiting for since March of last year. The National Labor Relations Board had decided whether or not football players at Northwestern can form a union. It was the news Kain Colter had feared.
In a win for the university and for the NCAA, the board declined jurisdiction on the matter. The players’ union bid is over. The board did not determine whether revenue-sport athletes should be classified as employees, but rather punted the decision down the line to be dragged out in locker rooms and in courtrooms for years to come. And the only lesson we can take from the process that brought us to this is that it’s all going to be painful for everyone involved.
The NLRB “kicked the can down the road,” CAPA lawyer John Adam said. “They basically said, ‘It’s a mess.’ But it’s not [the players’s] mess. It’s the NCAA’s and the school’s mess.”
“After a 17-month drum roll, it’s kind of anti-climactic,” said CAPA president Ramogi Huma, who described the decision as “surreal”. He had heard rumblings of the ruling while getting his kids ready for school yesterday morning. “But it’s just a delay. It doesn’t close the door forever.”
The door had opened in February 2014, when former Northwestern QB Kain Colter testified before the NLRB regional director in Chicago. (A month later, the director would rule that Wildcats players were employees—a decision that was overturned yesterday.) Due to the overwhelming public and media interest in the case, the hearing was moved downtown, to the historic Dirksen Federal Building and an upper-floor room that at least had a couple of rows for spectators. The last witness of the third day of the hearing was Janna Blais, Northwestern’s deputy director of athletics and student welfare. Blais testified for more than four hours, striking a defiant tone in defending the university. After all, she said, she spent every working day of her life attempting to make athletes’ lives at Northwestern better. And just two days before, Colter had attacked the notion that she had ever came close to doing enough. It felt personal.
As was the case at the end of every day, the participants and observers milled around the lobby of Dirksen, basking in the spectacle of an unprecedented case, recapitulating the day’s testimony. But the hearing was no mere novelty for the principals. At the other end of the lobby, Blais grew emotional, tears rolling down her face as she physically collapsed into the arms of a friend.
After the NLRB regional office had ruled (a decision immediately appealed by the university) but before Northwestern players held their locker-room vote on unionization, I followed Kain Colter around Washington, D.C. as he and College Athletes Players Association founder Ramogi Huma met with politician after politician. The two were laying the groundwork for the potential legislation that might one day classify college athletes as employees. I’d spoken to Colter after big games, after big losses, after he started Northwestern’s first bowl win in the 21st century, and he had always been confident. In D.C., I saw Colter sit down across from a state representative and calmly lay out his reasons for going up against his own school, and it was the most serene I’d ever seen him.
He wasn’t just in control — he was having fun. It was his first trip to D.C., and he was the talk of Capitol Hill. In between meetings with members of Congress, Colter posed for pictures in front of monuments. His union push had brought him national attention, and important people were taking time out of their days to listen to what he had to say. It was to be the high point of Colter’s historic union push.
He could not have been more different a few weeks later, when we met for breakfast at a diner in downtown Evanston. Dressed in an orange hoodie and sweatpants, and on crutches after ankle surgery to repair a practice injury, he looked absolutely worn down. He slowly made his way through his lumberjack platter, begrudgingly checking his phone every time a new message came in. Between sips of coffee, Colter just came out and said it: “I’m ready for this all to be over.”
“This,” which Colter had hoped would drastically rearrange the face of amateur sports in America, had kicked off with a single email early in summer of 2013.
Ramogi Huma was a linebacker for UCLA in the late ‘90s. He’s since dedicated most of his adult life to working to help protect the rights of unpaid college athletes, and try to land them even a tiny slice of the multi-billion-dollar NCAA pie. For Huma, it started when Bruins teammate Donnie Edwards was suspended for accepting a bag of groceries. Huma has sat across tables from parents, athletes, politicians, and even Stephen Colbert trying to promote his cause, but he never had that one player willing to put his name and his reputation on the line.
For Colter, the light bulb went off in Nick Dorzweiler’s “Field Studies in the Modern Workplace” class at Northwestern. After visiting a steel factory, and a discussion in class about the rise of and need for unions, he drew the connection with student-athletes. After some conversations with close teammates, Colter decided to reach out to Huma.
Huma had just left his office in Riverside, Calif., when his phone buzzed. He read Colter’s email and could barely contain his excitement. He quickly returned to his desk to speak with Colter on the phone. Huma said he immediately realized the moment would be one he remembered for a long time.
“Here was the quarterback from Northwestern, captain of the team,” Huma recalls. “He basically said he wanted to take this thing to the next level. I could read the excitement and the passion just in the email.”
In what Huma said was only a 10-minute phone conversation, between two people who didn’t really know the first thing about each other, the seed for how to go about trying to build the first players’ union in college sports was planted. From there, it was all details. Huma obtained the involvement of the United Steelworkers, who could provide the resources and experience Colter and Huma would need in a hearing against Northwestern and beyond. Huma leaned especially on Tim Waters, a boisterous, energy-drink-guzzling sort in charge of special projects for the USW. Waters said he first heard about the union idea in September, around the same time Colter caused a national stir by wearing an “All Players United” wristband during a game without first telling his coach. By December, CAPA had the official backing of the USW.
Colter, Huma and Waters had hoped to file the petition to unionize during bowl week, best to maximize media exposure. Unfortunately for them, Northwestern failed to qualify for a bowl game. The plan was pushed back a month.
Colter and Huma pitched Northwestern players on unionization on Jan. 26, 2014. Colter believed the whole thing had to happen in one day; if players had known about the plan in advance, word would have reached the coaches and torpedoed the entire operation. Colter and Huma met with the team in groups, pumping them with information before asking them to sign a union card. In the months after, University officials and alumni would assail the two for taking advantage of players by not giving them enough time or information to decide. Colter has repeatedly insisted he prepared his teammates properly.
Early on the morning of Jan. 28, Colter, dressed in a blue suit and yellow tie, walked into the football offices. He sat down across from head coach Pat Fitzgerald.
Colter and Fitzgerald had butted heads earlier in the season over Colter’s “All Players United” wristband, which he considered a selfish, individual act, and which Colter considered a show of solidarity. This time, Colter was able to tell Fitzgerald he had most of the team supporting him—in fact, he had brought one teammate in support.
“It was kind of weird,” Colter said. “I don’t think [Fitzgerald] understood how big it was going to be. He sat back, and he wasn’t mad at all. We talked about it. I think he said he was proud of me, that we were bringing up good concerns.”
Colter then met with an associate athletic director, as AD Jim Phillips wasn’t available. Finally, Colter and Huma could go public with their plan.
“I wasn’t nervous,” Colter said. “I feel like you become nervous about things you’re unsure of. I wasn’t second-guessing myself. I was anxious to get this rolling. I’d been around sports my whole life and I knew this system was messed up.”
The union plan was revealed before a horde of tipped-off reporters at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Chicago. Colter’s voicemail box filled up within an hour. Northwestern initially heaped praise on Colter. Fitzgerald sent a tweet after the announcement commending his players for trying to effect change. Phillips texted Colter to congratulate him on his courage in taking a stand.
Later that afternoon, the spin cycle began. Phillips released a statement that denounced the idea of a players’ union for college athletes. The NCAA condemned the announcement, claiming that a union would undermine “the purpose of college: an education.”
“It’s not a complaint, it’s recognizing it for what it is.”
On the stand for more than five hours, Colter didn’t say anything that would surprise anyone who knows the slightest bit about college football. He testified that players can spend 60 hours a week on football during the season up to 50 hours a week in the offseason. In more specific complaints, Colter testified that football prevented him from pursuing certain classes he wanted to take, and criticized Northwestern for not properly handling the insurance for an MRI on his injured ankle. Some in the athletic department, as well as a few former teammates, were furious with his testimony.
“People took it so personally,” Colter said. “I was telling my story. This is how many hours we worked. These were the rules we had to follow. I wasn’t making up stuff to throw the program under the bus. It wasn’t about how Northwestern does things wrong, it was facts about every D-1 program. We work a lot of hours. It’s not a complaint, it’s recognizing it for what it is.”
Former Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa took to Twitter and to the Chicago Tribune to publicly oppose Colter’s cause. Persa and Colter already had a difficult relationship dating back to their two-year overlap as quarterbacks. Colter had told reporters during Persa’s final season that he wanted to be the starter, and the team’s two-quarterback system created friction when they traded snaps. According to Colter, when he reached out to Persa to discuss the union issue, Persa asked Colter not to contact him anymore.
“That pissed me off,” Colter said. “We may not have been best of friends. But for somebody I played with for two years…you can’t call me to ask about it?”
The seams of Northwestern’s “football family,” the mantra used to sell recruits, were showing at the hearing. Pat Fitzgerald gave testimony that directly challenged Colter’s assertions, while anonymous comments from both sides began appearing in local papers. At times, the bickering lost all subtlety. During spring practice a couple months later, coaches and a few players openly complained about poor leadership during Northwestern’s disastrous five-win 2013 season. Colter, of course, had been a captain.
“It hurt, I’m not going to lie,” Colter said. “It hurt. I had to focus on the positive. I knew what I said. I never said one negative word about Fitz. In the testimony, I said 10 times how much I love Northwestern. I wanted to get out there and defend myself. But if you’re defending yourself all the time, it looks like you did something wrong.”
Of course, it wasn’t just Colter who got hurt. It was Janna Blais, whose entire livelihood was called into question. It was Brian Baptiste, Northwestern’s compliance director, who was forced to admit a large part of his job was creatively counting hours — an entire weekend road trip clocked in at three countable NCAA hours — to fit under nonsensical NCAA guidelines. It was Pat Fitzgerald, nearly universally beloved by his players and now being told that a good many of them were unhappy with their treatment.
That’s what made the Northwestern union case fascinating for those who actually lived it. It lacked a mustache-twirling bad guy or an oblivious doofus. The NCAA wasn’t on trial. Instead, it was people like Carolyn Lindley, a sweet old lady from the financial aid office who looked like she just wanted to offer everyone some hard candy, being forced to defend the policies set by NCAA cartel members way beyond her pay grade.
“Coaches have all the control.”
Colter sat down with me again three days before the union vote, seeming just a little more relaxed than before, if only just because it was one day closer to the end of this battle.
It was about a month until the 2014 NFL Draft, to which Colter had devoted most of his attention since the February hearing. The day after his testimony, he flew to Indianapolis for the Senior Bowl. He practiced, but couldn’t play because of his ankle injury. Soon after, he underwent microfracture surgery to take care of lingering pain.
Coming back to Evanston for Pro Day in March served as a stark reminder of Colter’s fractured relationship with his school.
“It was definitely weird,” Colter said of his return. “I was there for the first time, and nobody wanted to talk to me. I was still the same guy that played under them for four years. But you can’t say hi? You can’t see how I’m doing? I had no idea what they thought about me. At the same time, you have NFL scouts asking about me. Do I know if they’re going to the scouts and calling me a backstabber? It felt like I was an island going back there. I didn’t know who I had on my side.”
Colter’s worst-burned bridge was his relationships with Phillips and Fitzgerald. From the time of the union announcement to the vote three months later, Colter says he interacted with Phillips twice. Once was the encouraging text message right after the press conference; the second at an open student-athlete meeting a week before the vote. Colter sought out Phillips when it was over and tried to explain his motivations, he says, but Phillips told him they couldn’t talk because of sensitive labor laws.
After the announcement, both publicly and privately, Fitzgerald stated his respect for Colter as a person. On multiple occasions, he described Colter “as a son” and a stand-up individual. But in Fitzgerald’s official position, he had to keep his distance.
“I like to think time heals all,” Colter said. “I’d love to sit down with everyone. I won’t know how they feel until we sit down and put everything on the table. That’s what I’ve wanted this whole time. To sit down with Fitz or Jim Phillips.”
One former player who voted no last April said Fitzgerald was initially just as uneasy speaking to the rest of the team about the upcoming vote.
“Fitz gave a speech to the team about it, and it was weird,” the player said. “He wasn’t himself. He wasn’t sure where players stood. You could tell he was very cautious. It was more like lawyer talk because there were so many things he couldn’t say.”
Into that vacuum stepped the Northwestern football machine. Some boosters railed against the players for being entitled. Former players lobbied current players to vote no on the union—with rumors that they were threatening the close of certain job pipelines for those who voted yes. Current players began giving their own opinions during spring practice, and few showed public support for Colter.
After the initial spring practice, players would spend much of the time normally reserved for studying plays or watching film in large players-only union meetings, according to one since-graduated player. The whole team met three or four times, in discussions that lasted as long as 90 minutes. It was clear the sentiment about the union had changed since the initial announcement, with the hearing serving as the turning point.
“Me personally, when Kain testified, that was a turning point,” the former player said. “He came off as stretching some truths. We love the way we’re treated. We thought the union would be more about the NCAA, but the vote was all about Northwestern.”
Fitzgerald publicly declared that a union would not be the best option for his players to secure more benefits. He allowed any player to meet with him individually, and urged them to seek out information on their own. A former player who was there says Fitzgerald and his staff never explicitly encouraged players to vote a certain way, but Colter says the power dynamics were clear enough.
“I know the pressure that’s being put on them. It’s like a paternalistic relationship” Colter said. “It’s a lot of ‘yes sirs’ and listening to their orders. [Coaches] have all the control. A lot of people don’t want to threaten that, because coaches have a lot of control over your experience.”
On April 25, 2014, Northwestern’s scholarship football players conducted the first-ever vote for a union in college athletics. The vote was held in the school’s athletic complex, and news trucks, cameras and reporters lined up on Ashland Avenue, hoping to catch a chatty player as he left one of the two voting sessions.
Players walked into the room and gave their name to an NLRB official. They then entered a booth where they could check one of two boxes—for or against unionizing. One player described it as “just like voting for the president.”
Multiple players told me they believed the vote was overwhelmingly against unionizing. With yesterday’s NLRB ruling, the vote totals will never be made public, but even Colter believes it would have been a resounding “no.”
“I’m sick of how people have totally distorted what this is,” Colter had said a day before the vote. “For guys on the team, it’s no longer about having a voice. They’re not going to vote yes because they don’t want to tarnish their relationship with the school. I’ve heard concerns from the guys like we won’t get jobs, alumni won’t donate, coach Fitz might leave. None of that has to do with having a voice. It’s become about a fear. It’s saddening because that’s not what it’s about. There’s been so many variables added to the puzzle that shouldn’t be.”
“I feel like I’m in exile.”
It was easy to see why Colter was worn down by the process. It wasn’t just his senior season, in which only a combination of pain pills and Toradol could keep him on the field. It wasn’t just recovering from the ankle injury, and a concussion suffered on a vicious hit in Northwestern’s second-to-last game of the season.
It was trying to focus on his dream of becoming an NFL player while everyone only saw him as a would-be union leader. It was dealing with a constant stream of misinformation, from coaches and even the media, all doing their part to discourage a bunch of confused college kids. For all of Colter’s work, and the monumental achievement of getting an NLRB regional director to grant college football players employee status, he knew how the vote was going to go. He felt stuck, screaming in an empty room.
For a case that was so distorted, Colter believes it’s important to keep reminding everyone of the facts. He never asked for money. Instead, his union sought “benefits” such as guaranteed health protection, guaranteed scholarships for players to finish their degrees, and the ability to bargain for things like the number of contact practices.
Colter made himself the face of the union movement, even publicly declaring himself the lone representative for the players in the January announcement, so he knew the criticism would come with the territory.
“I didn’t sign on to do it for the attention,” Colter said. “To me, it was the right thing to do. In my heart, I always knew it was the right thing.”
The moment decision came out, Colter said he felt relief. At last, the burden of the last 19 months had been lifted. It was a burden Colter carried even if it meant he wouldn’t reap the rewards.
If and when college football players do unionize, Colter won’t see the benefits. He won’t receive a retroactive salary. If the Toradol use or the concussion he suffered in his last game as an amateur lead to health problems 10 years from now, Northwestern won’t help. Yesterday’s NLRB setback means no one currently playing is likely to reap the benefits of unionization in their college careers.
In June 2014, Colter graduated from Northwestern with a major in Psychology. It was hard not to notice in a photo of Pat Fitzgerald with his graduating seniors that Colter was standing the farthest from his former coach.
Colter went undrafted, and spent one season as a member of the Minnesota Vikings’ practice squad as a wide receiver and running back. He wasn’t invited back for 2015. He’s been largely silent over the last year, not wanting to be thought of only as the union guy. He couldn’t be further removed from his whirlwind meetings with politicians or his tiring pre-vote week in Evanston. Now, he enjoys far more anonymity than seems right for someone who is behind one of the most important legal fights in American sports history, even if he ultimately lost.
For Colter, losing the decision wasn’t even the worst part. He hasn’t spoken with Fitzgerald or Phillips since last spring, when they both rebuffed him.
“I lost my alma mater,” Colter said. “I feel like I’m in exile. I still have my teammates and friends, but the coaches, administrators, none of them. That’s the hardest part, because I sacrificed so much. I loved my four years there.”
Despite the decision, and despite the burned bridges, Colter says a lot of good has already come from his advocacy—the NCAA and some conferences have already made changes to give players more scholarship security, more medical coverage, and cost-of-living stipends. It’s not enough, not nearly, but it’s a start. And that alone is a victory.
So what does Kain Colter do now? He doesn’t feel as if he’s played his last game of football. With his degree in hand, he still has hopes of going to law school in the future. A break isn’t out of the question, with football and CAPA taking up nearly every free second of his life for the past year. The only thing that’s for sure is that his fight will continue, even if his name fades.
“I still know it was the right thing to do,” Colter said. “I didn’t just do this for Northwestern. I didn’t do it for myself. I’m passionate about athletes all over the nation. The NCAA can roll back any of these new policies. Until the athletes have some kind of legal protection, we’re going to keep fighting. Hopefully there’s a next group of athletes willing to put their necks on the line. I’m not going to give up.”