EVANSTON, Ill. -- Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald is finally talking to his team about the unionization push and outlining why players should vote against forming a union later this month.
Fitzgerald broke his silence Wednesday after conferring with university attorneys. He had been unable to address the topic since January when Northwestern players, led by former quarterback Kain Colter, filed a petition with the NLRB to unionize. Fitzgerald read a letter to players and sent it to their parents, and has since addressed the topic another time.
"I believe it's in their best interests to vote no," Fitzgerald said Saturday following a team practice. "With the research that I've done, I'm going to stick to the facts and I'm going to do everything in my power to educate our guys. Our university is going to do that. We'll give them all the resources they need to get the facts."
Northwestern players will vote April 25 whether to form a union after the regional director of Chicago's National Labor Relations Board office ruled last month that players are employees of the school and have the right to unionize. Northwestern is appealing the ruling to the national NLRB office.
Fitzgerald is prohibited from making promises to players about benefits they would receive if they vote against unionizing. He also cannot make any threats or interrogate players on how they will vote. He is allowed to answer questions, provide materials and state his views on the topic until 24 hours before the voting period.
"Right now, we have great protocols in place, and we haven't been forced to do that by any third party," Fitzgerald said. "I know our guys trust me. I've been pretty clear with my support."
Several older Northwestern players on Saturday voiced their opposition to a union, while maintaining that changes must be made to help college athletes. They said the union debate has been a distraction. Quarterback Trevor Siemian said unionizing might hurt the Wildcats in their goal of winning the Big Ten.
"I think a lot of guys feel the same as I do," said senior center Brandon Vitabile, a member of the team's leadership council. "Coach Fitz has done everything in his power and been a voice for us and he has gotten changes. He goes to [American Football Coaches Association] meetings and does act in our interests. I've had conversations with him before all this happened.
"Guys have to realize the ramifications of what may occur."
Vitabile added that "no one knows" what unionization would mean for the players. The College Athletes Players Association, which represents Northwestern players in the union push, believes collective bargaining will help athletes receive long-term medical coverage, increase the value of scholarships, provide due process rights in disciplinary situations and allow them to profit from the use of their likenesses. CAPA has stated that its primary mission is not to get schools to pay players.
"Things do need to change, and I hope the NCAA sees that," senior running back Venric Mark said. "But at the end of the day, Northwestern treats us very well, and we do not need a third party to come in between us and the coaches."
Northwestern must file its request to appeal with the national NLRB office by Wednesday. CAPA then has seven days to file a rebuttal brief. The NLRB then decides whether it will consider the appeal.
If the NLRB considers the appeal, ballots from the April 25 vote will be impounded until a decision is made. If a majority of players vote to unionize and the appeal is denied, CAPA would attempt to start the collective-bargaining process. If Northwestern refuses, the case would go to federal court. If players vote no but the appeal is denied, they could vote again 12 months after the ballots are unsealed.
Vitabile confirmed that players are receiving information from both Northwestern and CAPA. Players will continue to discuss the pros and cons leading up to the vote, which will take place on campus at an undisclosed location.
"It is a little weird, but at the end of the day, we all have to take our own stance," Mark said. "You have to go with what you believe in. I strongly believe that Northwestern has done everything in their power to make me a better person and a better player. I'm taking my stance and everybody on the team knows that. But I'm not here to persuade you one way or another."
Fitzgerald serves on the AFCA's board of trustees and has discussions at both the Big Ten and NCAA levels about improving the experience for players. He said no current or former players asked him for help in improving their experience before filing the union petition.
"This is not a national issue," Fitzgerald said. "That's my understanding with the NLRB. This is that organization against Northwestern, and I have to educate our guys on that. That's what we'll stick to, the facts, and I look forward to unbelievable positive change."
Vitabile wouldn't speculate on whether the team is leaning one way on unionizing.
"The 25th [of April] is what really matters," Mark said.