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NU official: A football union could mean changes for female athletes

Updated: March 22, 2014 6:24AM



The top female athletics executive at Northwestern University said at a labor board hearing Thursday she has “serious concerns” that if the football players are able to form a union, it could force the university to offer equitable benefits to female athletes.

“Title IX law mandates you equitably provide services, resources and programs to both genders... It says we have two genders — male and female. It’s not males, females and football players,” said Janna Blais, Northwestern’s deputy director of athletics for student athlete welfare and the university’s senior women’s administrator.

If the football players form a union and are allowed to have a salary, Blais said, “We will need to provide opportunities and benefits to our female student atheles in an equitable fashion.”

Blais said the athletics department as a whole doesn’t make money — even though the football program does make a profit — so any collective bargaining might create “significant issues” in how the university would give the same benefit to its female athletes as some of its male athletes would have obtained through bargaining.

She also ticked off several examples Thursday of football players who have taken classes that conflicted with their practice schedules, including the types of chemistry and psychology courses that a quarterback testified he couldn’t take due to his demanding football schedule.

But one example of a chemistry class fell on a Monday, and the players don’t practice on Mondays. They lift weights.

The testimony before a National Labor Relations Board hearing officer marks the third day of arguments between Northwestern’s football players who seek to form an employee union, and the university, which sees the players as primarily students in an academic pursuit of a degree.

“Our foundation in the athletics department is our academics and compliance. That’s who we are,” Blais testified.

Blais said student athletes’ advisers know the students’ class and practice schedules and help students find classes that don’t conflict with their athletic duties. When football players have a class starting at 11 a.m. — just as their practices end — advisors remind the students to hustle off to class and provide grab-bag lunches, she said.

Blais reviews prospective student athletes’ academic records before they are admitted to Northwestern, but she said she plays no role in the admissions department’s final decision to accept them.

She said the department monitors student-athletes’ grades, requires freshmen student-athletes to study for a certain number of hours, contacts professors when the student-athletes are struggling, and provides other help to make sure the student-athletes succeed in their classes.

Blais said she knows of football players who’ve recently graduated and gone on to attend law school and enjoy careers as a doctor and an engineer.

Quarterback Kain Colter testified Tuesday that the grueling 50- to 60-hour per week football schedules prevented him from realizing his dream of being an orthopedic doctor because he couldn’t take the necessary classes while fulfilling his duties as team leader.

Meanwhile, a hearing officer presiding over arguments about whether the NU football team can form a union said Thursday she believes the team’s case “is a little weak” because only one player has taken the stand to detail his experience.

“We have nothing on the record that establishes a relationship between a player and a coach,” said Joyce Hofstra, the hearing officer for the National Labor Relations Board after a lawyer for the football players sought to submit evidence on the team’s revenues and expenses.

The lawyer, Gary Kohlman, said the evidence would rebut upcoming arguments by Northwestern University that unionization would impinge upon the school’s Title IX programs. The university’s lawyer, Alex Barbour, said the revenues and expenses at issue had nothing to do with Title IX.

Hofstra responded that the football team’s lawyers could present more evidence if it is relevant, but “we don’t need to pile up documents simply because we can.”

The Sun-Times has learned that head coach Pat Fitzgerald is tentatively scheduled to testify on Friday.

The paperwork showed that Northwestern’s football team generated $30 million in revenues in the 2012-2013 academic year — and incurred $21.7 million in expenses.

Of the expenses, the head football coach’s annual salary of $2 million was more than half the total $3.9 million paid in total to all of the men’s teams’ head coaches.

Other testimony showed that 60 percent of Northwestern’s 8,400 undergraduate students receive financial aid to help them pay the $63,000 yearly tuition.

Football players account for about half of the students who get fully reimbursed “free rides,” said Carolyn Lindley, university director of financial aid.



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