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The Virginian-Pilot(Norfolk, VA.)
CHICAGO — No matter how this season unfolds, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald insists no team is more unified than his Wildcats.
For that, he credits the push for them to unionize.
As the Big Ten opened its annual two-day media event Monday, some big story lines hung over the college landscape.
A four-team playoff system to determine a national champion is being implemented. There's the push by the five power conferences for autonomy to make their own NCAA rules. The NCAA's board of directors will vote Aug. 7, and Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany expects it to pass. There are two new members in the conference — Rutgers and Maryland.
And there's the union movement, with former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter leading the push, to form the first union for college athletes.
Fitzgerald said he's "proud of the maturity" his players displayed the past few months.
"As I look back and reflect upon the experiences that our young men went through ... what jumps out to me is their maturity," he said. "As we visited throughout the whole offseason, I believe there's no more unified football program in the country.
"It's been nothing but a positive and nothing more than unifying in our locker room and throughout our entire football program. So I think we're a leg up from that standpoint... Hopefully that will just be something that we can draw upon."
A regional director of the National Labor Relations Board ruled in March that Northwestern's full scholarship players can bargain with the school as employees, sending shockwaves through college sports.
It's not clear if the Wildcats support unionization. They voted in April on whether to form the union, but the result is not known because the NLRB impounded the ballots pending an appeal by the university and a possible court fight. The school urged the NLRB to overturn the ruling this month, holding up the football program as exemplifying the university's integration of athletics and academics.
Either way, this was seen by many as a step toward the end of the traditional student-athlete era. But Delany isn't sure unionization is inevitable at another school even if it fails at Northwestern.
"It's hard to predict or project," he said. "I would say even at the outset for the most part, these matters of labor are really state-by-state, especially for public institutions."
Even so, it's being discussed. Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said there were some conversations with athletic director Gene Smith.
"We had a conversation with our team about it," Meyer said. "Gene Smith thought it would be important because they might be getting contacted. I asked the guys here, 'Is there something going on? Do I need to be aware of it?' And the relationship is so close, there was nothing to it. So we moved on."
For Northwestern, it's an issue that lingers.
"This was a little more than Xs and Os," linebacker Collin Ellis said. "This is life. This is, 'What do you value?' "
What could have been a divisive issue had the opposite effect, Fitzgerald said.
"As you look at (players' comments), it was nothing negative about anything about our program," he said. "It was the maturity they showed to shed light on some things that maybe they had heard about what may be happening at other institutions."
Quarterback Trevor Siemian made his feelings clear in the spring, saying he did not support unionization.
"It helped people connect in different ways than they had," he said. "On a higher level, I think. We were talking about some things that have a significant impact on the landscape of college football.
"I'm 22, and talking to 17- and 18-year-old freshmen about things that probably weren't brought up in a (high school) locker room. We're connecting all over the place. In that sense, doing it, you get to know people more, get to know what makes them tick."