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Wildcats’ coach urges ‘no’ on union

– Northwestern football coach Pat Fitzgerald sided with his university against the formation of a players union in his first public comments Saturday, repeating what he already told his team: “I believe it’s in their best interests to vote no.”

Fitzgerald addressed the issue for the first time with his squad Wednesday, a week after Peter Ohr, regional director for the National Labor Relations Board, ruled that Northwestern’s scholarship football players were employees. That decision entitled players to conduct a secret-ballot vote on forming a union to pursue collective bargaining with the school, a move that could significantly alter the structure of college sports – especially big revenue-producers football and basketball.

Fitzgerald said that while he’s constrained in what he can discuss regarding a union, he sent players and their parents a letter stating his position before addressing the team in person.

“All this can be handled with communication. It’s about trust,” Fitzgerald said about issues – including improved medical care, practice schedules and others – raised by the College Athletes Players Association, the group seeking to unionize players.

So far, CAPA has not addressed paying players on scholarship.

The NLRB set April 25 for the players vote. Only players currently on scholarship and participating in football activities will cast ballots, totaling around 70 current members of the squad.

The university has appealed Ohr’s decision to the full, five-member NLRB board in Washington and will file a final brief by Wednesday’s deadline. If the full board upholds Ohr’s ruling, Northwestern could also challenge that ruling in federal appeals court.

Fitzgerald said the school had always been receptive to players’ needs, including his own, and that there was already a structure in place to pursue many of the issues CAPA raised.

A handful of players who lingered after practice said they were inclined to vote “no,” though senior center Brandon Vitabile added, “We’re all smart guys. We’re open to hearing things and discussing things.”

Like Fitzgerald, he was reluctant to characterize the team’s deliberations.

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