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The Kain Colter-Pat Fitzgerald APU controversy should not be a thing

It began as a simple student-athlete-led campaign for NCAA reform. A visually subtle protest to draw attention to hot-button issues in college athletics. Four days later, for Northwestern, it had turned into a national controversy involving the purportedly restrictive behavior of coach Pat Fitzgerald.

On Saturday, Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter joined Georgia Tech quarterback Vad Lee and a host of other FBS players in scrabbling the letters APU on various pieces of gameday apparel. Not only was Colter the most high-profile student-athlete to participate in the first unveiling of the “All Players United” campaign, his display – contrasting white lettering on black wrist tape – was the most conspicuous. Colter was painted as the figurehead of the movement, even if he was just one of many players, some of them unnamed, electing to participate.

The dull slate of college football games this weekend, including the Wildcats’ tilt against Maine, brought the APU movement to the forefront, as national writers opined on how a group of players bringing their unified dissent inside the lines would affect the national discourse on the future of the NCAA – and whether the three-letter inscribing was the first step in an inevitable march towards something more obstructive, like players refusing to compete for their respective universities. Another voice added to the chorus of anti-NCAA sentiment? Sure. But somehow, the act of players coming together and laying out – in concert with the National College Players Association – a platform of desired changes to the NCAA’s guidelines, resonated on deeper level. This wasn’t merely another NCAA critic hammering away at his laptop, lamenting the outdated and utterly archaic functionality of amateurism.

This was (or is) a group of players being cognizant of their place in the warped modern college athletic landscape: the wrongful price-fixing mechanism the organization uses to deny players compensation above grants-in-aid scholarships, the lack of adequate health care and information about concussions, the absence of a trust fund to help shoulder the cost of medical bills after graduation, the sheer absurdity of non-profit institutions brokering massive broadcast rights deals and withholding payouts from the student-athletes who make those deals possible in the first place, among other perceived injustices.

These issues are impossible to ignore. The Ed O’Bannon lawsuit – which threatens to fundamentally alter the NCAA’s revenue-sharing model, and could shatter amateurism once and for all  – has become one of this year’s biggest stories in college sports. The information is out there; was it crazy to think players were going to take notice at some point? Was it really that shocking to see a psychology major (and Goldman Sachs summer intern) at the nation’s 12th-ranked university advocate the implementation of cost-of-attendance stipends at his conference’s media days?

That discussion didn’t receive nearly as much attention as the APU movement, and for good reason: the APU movement brings together a number of student-athletes, is historically unique in its function and purpose, and purports to add new members (perhaps from other sports) in the coming weeks and months. But Colter’s involvement – or at the very least, the tight-lipped lead-up to his involvement – did not sit well with Fitzgerald, who told CBSSports’s Dennis Dodd that he was “disappointed” with Colter’s decision to participate in Saturday’s protest without it first being “vetted through the systems we have in place,” among them a “leadership council for dialogue on things.” Colter addressed the topic Wednesday.

(From Northwestern News Network)

On the charge that he would have been better off clearing his participation with Fitzgerald before Saturday’s game: “But in my perspective, it’s tough to ask permission to do something because it could get shot down. And the whole APU thing goes against having to ask permission to voice our opinions.”

On why he decided to participate: “Even though we compete every Saturday, we all need to come together for a greater cause. I’m not going to have any individual benefit from this (because) I’ll be gone after this year. This is for the younger guys all around the nation.”

If you watch the above video, there’s a moment (around the 1:30 mark) when Fitzgerald is heard ordering the media to end their question-and-answer session with Colter, saying “I could care less if you want to talk to me or not. You have three minutes.” From this vantage point – full disclosure: I did not attend practice yesterday – it is impossible to distill the tenor of Fitzgerald’s words. Spend enough time around Northwestern’s head coach, and you are conditioned to expect at least a few sarcastic quips nearly every time he speaks. I can’t tell if that was the case here, but by the way Chicago Tribune reporter Teddy Greenstein described it – that it “gave the appearance that Fitzgerald was trying to muzzle his starting quarterback and senior captain as he talked about a meaningful issue” – it seems Fitzgerald was flat serious, that he may have been intent on curtailing Colter’s time in front of reporters.

The implication is that Northwestern’s coach did not want Colter to talk about APU – or, perhaps, that he didn’t want Colter discussing he and Fitzgerald’s conversation about APU, the nature of which was initially reserved from the media. “Kain and I had a discussion, and he and I will keep (the contents) between the two of us,” Fitzgerald said on the Big Ten conference call Tuesday. “What we try to do here is keep things in a team context. When you decide to do something like that, I think it’s a teachable and coachable moment.”

These comments, combined with similar remarks from Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson regarding his players’ participation in APU, struck a sensitive note with Yahoo! Sports writer Pat Forde, whose critical column Wednesday night described why Fitzgerald and Johnson’s reactions were so troubling. “To me, their reactions seem to exemplify the worst college football coaching tendencies: control for control’s sake, a tendency toward groupthink, an aversion to individual expression, and a rigid response to a challenge to authority,” he writes. All of which makes perfect sense…if Fitzgerald is, truly and meaningfully, unhappy with Colter’s decision to participate in APU.

There’s a big difference between encouraging team-wide discussion – an act Colter, in a “teachable moment,” according to Fitzgerald, bypassed when he failed to mention his intentions to mark his gear at the leadership council meeting – and vehemently stamping out individual expression. Fitzgerald makes clear he is not averse to APU in principle, a point obscured by Dodd’s misleading headline: “Fitzgerald ‘disappointed’ in QB’s decision to participate in APU.” He instead seems dismayed by Colter’s decision not to disclose his intended involvement prior to Saturday’s game. Had Colter done that – had he explained in the same reasoned way he detailed the goals of APU to reporters Wednesday – maybe Fitzgerald would never have been upset with his quarterback in the first place. And this whole quasi-controversy, this seeming referendum on the injustice of college-athletes’ ostensible inability to distinguish themselves from the team concept, could have been avoided.

I can’t know for sure – maybe Fitzgerald would have stepped in, would have said no, if the entire team isn’t doing it, you’re not either. But I really doubt it.