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Northwestern players’ fight for union overshadows everything else

Updated: March 22, 2014 6:46AM

This is better drama than any high school signing day or BCS title game.

This is high stakes, and it’s on.

The deceptive setting is the low-ceilinged, 13th-floor court room at the Dirksen Federal Building, where there are almost no spectators and cheering is not allowed.

The game is simple as dirt.

Are Northwestern football players — and, by extension, perhaps, all football players at all 120 Division I schools — employees?

Prove it, you win. And chaos in college sport ensues.

Lose it, you go home. And the status quo of big-time college football remains unchanged.

‘‘Northwestern has done a good job of educating’’ its players, Tim Waters, the national political director for the United Steelworkers union, which is assisting the union effort, said after Thursday’s hearing. ‘‘But the players are employees.’’

Wrong, NU said.

‘‘We believe there is no question they are first and foremost students,’’ said attorney Joe Tilson, founding partner of Chicago law firm Meckler, Bulger & Tilson, the firm that is assisting Northwestern in its defense.

In truth, this is not a court case, but rather an examination that will be transcribed and passed up the food chain of the National Labor Relations Board until somebody at the top makes a decision: Yes or no.

Then there likely will be months, even years of appeals and such. When or how the employee-or-not decision could affect the governing NCAA body itself, no one can say.

But you can’t say how quickly a crocodile released into a roomful of bloated cats will cause change, either.

Football had to come to this point. It had to.

As water works down a hill, so too did the lunacy of calling young men performing with great skill in more and more revenue-producing televised events, led by millionaire coaches, ‘‘amateurs.’’

That it took smart and skilled Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter to bring this to a head is as fitting as it is odd and timely.

Nobody in this courtroom, where Colter had testified for five hours Tuesday, has suggested that Northwestern is a renegade, nasty, even uncaring institution. And there are some, trust me.

‘‘We do not treat our athletes as ‘assets,’ ’’ snapped Janna Blais, the school’s deputy director for student-athlete welfare, while being grilled by Colter/union attorney Gary Kohlman.

A former D-I softball player, Blais was getting hot under the collar as Kohlman ignored her obvious caring and charitable nature. But her passion for her work was irrelevant for Kohlman’s purposes.

That she helped keep football players eligible and helped lead them to an astounding 97 percent graduation rate — the best in the nation — was also a kind of proof that Northwestern wanted its players, or assets, if you will, to continue doing the work they were brought in to do: play football.

That a person can be fed, housed, assisted, prodded, counseled — loved, even — and yet be a worker is the paradox in this dilemma.

Some of the misunderstanding was evident when Blais said that football players’ travel for games ‘‘is a privilege.’’

Really? Flights to State College, Pa., to stay in a motel? Fun rides to West Lafayette, Ind.; Iowa City; East Lansing, Mich; and — soon — College Park, Md.?

Her anger was understandable because she, like most former college athletes, cherished her years in sport. But that, too, in this narrow context, was irrelevant.

When Kohlman asked her if it was not true that football players might spend 30, 40, even 50 hours a week on their sport, she hesitated. Then she agreed:

‘‘When you add in travel, that would be correct.’’

Is an athlete free when he travels, watches film, lifts weights, performs charitable services? Is the Power of the Purple, of a scholarship worth $60,000 a year, of being cheered by thousands, enough to make one forget about injuries, courses you can’t take, experiences you can’t have?

Or even more than that, are such benefits enough to make one forget that what you are doing is, by almost any rational definition, work?

This isn’t an easy question. ‘‘Experts’’ who think they know the answer, don’t. At least not as it refers to the possibility of forming a players union that can collectively bargain, make workplace demands and, yes, strike.

To change what exists in big-time football will be very hard. Very disruptive.

The union attorneys say it’s up to Northwestern to prove its players are not workers. Northwestern says it has to prove no such thing, that these young men are — all together now — ‘‘student-athletes.’’

The case moves on.

Right now, I’d say the ball is in the air, 50-yard line, no fair catch allowed.

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