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CAPA Brings Out Northwestern Image Problem

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You can go from hero to villain quickly in college football. On potential game-winning field goals or game-winning touchdown drives, the line between G.O.A.T. and goat is a fine one.

But for Kain Colter, who became the face of Northwestern football’s resurgence in 2012, the crime came after his career, and it’s one some fans find more horrific than throwing a game-clinching interception.

Colter, the critics say, has pitted Northwestern against Northwestern.

That’s what this case has essentially been all along — Northwestern’s football players against the university — but Colter, they say, has made it personal. How could he fight a university that has given him so much?

It’s a question the university is legitimately puzzled by. Attorney Alex Barbour, representing Northwestern, said in the hearing on Tuesday that the school is confused by why it is the “test case,” considering it is not a “football factory.” Why is Colter taking jabs at a university that gave him a $76,000-per-year education, that gave him an education that led to an internship at Goldman Sachs, that gave him the platform to be under consideration for the NFL Draft?

Colter has said over and over again that he is not alleging any mistreatment at Northwestern. CAPA’s argument isn’t that the university has treated its athletes poorly; rather, the argument is that nothing forces the university to protect its players.

To Colter, it’s nothing personal. To a portion of the Northwestern faithful, it’s a cheap shot.

But aside from all the legal issues at play, the biggest problem for Northwestern that has come out during this hearing is the questioning of the university’s “we do it the right way” narrative.

Let me preface this by saying there isn’t a “right way” — if schools want to undermine academics to win championships, then to each their own. But Northwestern has preached its “right way” to anyone who will listen. Every press release starts with a mention of the school’s APR scores, the graduation rates and the team GPA. Northwestern is perceived to be the goodie two shoes of the NCAA, and it loves that perception.

But Colter’s testimony has knocked that image. He insulted coach Pat Fitzgerald’s beloved leadership council, saying that Fitzgerald is “51 percent of the vote,” and adding that he didn’t even want to join until he was pressured to. He said that the university — which milked all it could out of saying its starting quarterback was on a pre-med track — didn’t even allow him to pursue that track.

“When I came in the summer of 2010, I was really eager to knock out chemistry and other classes, but my advisors kind of informed me that chemistry is one of the tougher classes on campus, so they said, let’s try to knock out (distribution requirements,” Colter said on Tuesday.

Ultimately, he got behind, which he said is due to football.

“When you have to take chemistry a year behind all the other students at the university, you’re already behind,” he said.

Defenders of the university dispute this, or criticize Colter for bringing up what Northwestern does when the practice is more common at other schools. The latter may be true, but that doesn’t mean Colter’s testimony under oath can be discounted simply through preconceived notions.

Former Northwestern linebacker Nate Williams, who was a member of the leadership council and a starter under Pat Fitzgerald, said he, too, was given suggestions by advisors when choosing his classes.

“I can’t speak for everyone, but from my own experience, I was steered away from pursuing an engineering degree, which was kind of based on my test scores,” he said. “And looking back on it now, they were probably correct about that. But I do kind of feel that a lot of people do kind of have their courses picked for them in a sense.”

Williams’ case is different from Colter’s, because he doesn’t feel slighted by the university — quite the opposite. While he said he knows players who did “butt heads” with the administration in trying to pursue certain classes — they often do get their way — he believes the university did him a favor. He recognized that he, like most 18-year-olds, was “pretty naïve” heading into college. However, Williams also said advisors have encouraged him to take more difficult classes than he wanted to "take an easy way out with class selection."

There’s not a standard here. Some players can handle the classes they want to take from the get-go, while the university might advise — note: advise, not demand — others to start off with a lighter course load.

“It’s all an individual case,” Williams said.

And is that so bad? Is it really so bad for academic advisors to make steer athletes into majors and classes early in their college career that will help them be the most successful, provided they aren’t expressly prohibiting it?

The purists would say yes, but you also can’t make the assertion that the university is doing this without regard for the best interest of the athletes.

And so, Northwestern is stuck: It does what it thinks is best for its athletes, but has to hide that in order to maintain its image.

That, more than even the bare facts of what unionization would mean, is why Colter’s testimony is so personal to Northwestern.

No, Northwestern is not a “football factory,” but Colter’s testimony has revealed that the university may not fit the image that it puts on, even if the true image isn’t a bad one, either. That is what has made this “test case” so confusing and so troubling for the school, and for the NU faithful.