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Kevin Trahan, @k_trahan, Special for USA TODAY Sports

The first testimony in the Northwestern football players' unionization attempt came from former quarterback Kain Colter, and on the last day of testimony, three other former players took the witness stand.

But unlike Colter, they did so in defense of the university.

Doug Bartels, John Henry Pace and Patrick Ward testified before the National Labor Relations Board on Tuesday that their experiences as student-athletes were all encompassing, and that they chose Northwestern for its academic prowess, not just its football team.

"First and foremost, I knew that my education was the priority for me," said Bartels, who was an offensive lineman.

The three former players offered similar testimony. Bartels and Pace arrived at Northwestern as walk-ons, and Ward was signed as a scholarship player.

All three were high achievers in college, and unlike Colter, testified they were never steered by the university away from pursuing a tough major or taking tough classes. Bartels is in medical school, Pace is an engineer at Ford and Ward is an engineer at Boeing.

"It's terrific to have our former students act as spokesmen," Northwestern spokesman Al Cubbage said. "They're much better at it than I am.

"And I think they presented pretty clearly the fact that at Northwestern, they are primarily students. They are not employees; they are students of the university. And these gentlemen illustrated very clearly that they are not just students but terrific students."

However, the College Athletes Players Association maintained that being a great student does not negate the fact that students also can be employees. The former players and Northwestern's attorneys brought up that players are students even on game days, often studying on bus rides.

However, attorney Gary Kohlman, representing CAPA, pushed the point that for football players, football comes first. He read a passage in the team rulebook that states, "When we travel, we are traveling for one reason, to win a football game."

Northwestern routinely called witnesses who spoke to the university's high moral standards and its record of producing athletes who also excel in the classroom.

However, CAPA claimed its lawyers proved athletes are, in fact, employees by establishing that athletes receive compensation for a service and that the right to pull compensation -- a scholarship -- is at the discretion of the coach and the athletics department. The rest, including coach Pat Fitzgerald's tendencies, is irrelevant.

"Kain has said the football team has a high graduation rate despite putting in all the hours of football -- not because of football," said Ramogi Huma, CAPA's president, "The fact is, that's not relevant. Whether or not there are great graduation rates, poor graduation rates -- that's not a determining factor for any student employee. Whether they work in the cafeteria or library, it doesn't affect their employee status."

Though Colter made sure to note the NLRB petition is about athletes receiving a voice and not about mistreatment by Northwestern, former players have voiced disappointment about how the testimony has portrayed the university.

Both sides have until March11 to send their briefs to the regional director of the NLRB, Peter Sung Ohr. No matter which side receives a favorable decision, it is expected to be appealed to the NLRB in Washington.

"I think it's safe to say what happens here is not going to be decided in Chicago," Waters said.

 

February 26, 2014

 

 
 

 

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