The Northwestern unionization debate had the potential to do what all debates do: divide.
Instead, it did just the opposite.
Head coach Pat Fitzgerald and his players who also spoke Monday at Big Ten Media Day painted a picture of the unionization situation this offseason in Evanston as not something that pitted teammate against teammate or player against coach, but rather something that united the group.
“As I look back and reflect upon the experiences that our young men went through and our entire football program went through, that's what jumps out to me is their maturity. As we visited throughout the whole offseason, I believe there's no more unified football program in the country,” Fitzgerald said. “We've been through more since probably January than most, and it's been nothing but a positive and nothing more than unifying in our locker room and throughout our entire football program.”
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It was former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter who set off the fireworks earlier this year, making a push for his former teammates to unionize to better represent themselves. It wasn’t something done with malicious intentions, but it was something that certainly could have forced numerous wedges throughout the program, some of which might have been irreparable.
But though Colter seemed to have full support at first, comments from those such as quarterback Trevor Siemian and offensive lineman Brandon Vitabile seemed to indicate the players really had little to complain about with their treatment at Northwestern and that the majority of players would end up voting “no” on Colter’s proposal.
It might have been a blow to Colter’s fight for student-athletes to get what he calls “a seat at the table,” but, according to comments, it seems to have done nothing but good for the unity of the Wildcats.
“As you look at the comments of most of the guys that were on this year’s team from the minute we went through this experience, (there) was nothing negative about anything about our program,” Fitzgerald said. “The maturity that they showed to shed light on some things that maybe they had heard about what may be happening at other institutions I think is why we recruit the guys that we do: incredible leaders and captains and things of that nature.”
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And don’t just take it from the head coach, who’s remained vocally opposed to a union. The players themselves are the ones who laud the process as team-building.
“I think it kind of helped people connect in different ways than they had on a higher level of thinking,” Siemian said Monday. “We were talking about several things that had a serious and significant impact on the landscape of college football. At 22, I’m talking to 17, 18-year-old freshmen about things that probably weren’t brought up before. I’m connecting with people all over the place, sitting down in closed-door meetings, and we’re talking about pretty serious stuff. So in that sense, you get to know people a little bit more, you get to see what makes them tick, and I completely agree with coach.”
It wasn’t all rainbows, as some players did share Colter’s opinions and wanted to see his plan implemented. But even still, that disagreement seemed to only boost the players’ relationships more.
“There was some disagreement, and you’ll see that by the vote, that it’s not going to be a unanimous vote,” safety Ibraheim Campbell said. “But I think you don’t expect to agree with 105, 112 guys. So that was expected, and there was some of that. But everyone was mature about it, and I think it really helped being able to hear from different guys, where they come from, what their values are, why they believe what they believe. I think it helped our team because it really gave us that trust and that insight into guys that I don’t think otherwise would’ve came about.”
This offseason, it looked like Northwestern’s 2014 campaign would be about nothing else besides the unionization attempt. But if you believe the head coach and is players, it seems it will be about anything but.