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What will former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter's legacy be?

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Pull up Kain Colter’s biography on the official Northwestern athletic department website and you will find a catalog of accolades he attained playing football. Colter was twice named honorable mention All-Big Ten and ranks among NU’s all-time leaders in rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, passer efficiency rating, and single season and career rushing yards by a quarterback. Colter also keyed Northwestern’s upset of then No. 10-ranked Nebraska at Lincoln Memorial Stadium in November 2011 and was arguably the team’s most valuable player during its 10-win, 2012 season.

Though injuries limited his playing time in 2013, he still managed to throw for 577 yards and four touchdowns (and complete 79 percent of his passes), rush for 489 and five touchdowns and made ridiculous plays like this. Over four seasons at NU, Colter developed into one of the most versatile, dynamic offensive players in the country. Wildcats fans applauded his efforts. Opposing defensive coordinators feared him. Sometimes Colter was very good. At other times, he was excellent.

College football Fans tend to remember unique players like Colter. But when Colter’s legacy is assessed some 10 or 20 years down the line, what’s the first thing that will be mentioned? That ridiculous run against Nebraska? Maybe that time he accounted for four touchdowns and nearly 200 yards in a 50-14 pounding of Illinois? No and no. Recent events virtually guarantee it will not be anything related to what Colter did on the field. It’s been about four months since Colter played his last college game, and we’re already over talking about his Northwestern football career.

On Wednesday, the National Labor Relation’s board regional district in Chicago ruled that Northwestern football players on scholarship are employees who have the right to vote to form a union. The ruling is the first step in a process that formally began on January 28, when Ramogi Huma, the president of the College Athletes Players Association, filed a petition and union cards on behalf of a majority of Northwestern football players to the office at the same regional district of the NLRB. At a press conference that day, Colter, who is spearheading NU football players’ movement to unionize, announced the formation of the College Athletes Players Association. Colter laid out The CAPA’s sizable list of demands, expressed confidence the NLRB would rule in The CAPA’s favor and said the NCAA resembled a dictatorship.

Three weeks later, at a hearing in Chicago, Colter gave testimony that seemed to cast Northwestern in a negative light. Colter said he was brought to the university “to play football,” that his football schedule derailed his dream of becoming an orthopedic surgeon, that NU did not cover an MRI exam he needed for an ankle injury suffered in the 2013 season and that academic advisers steered players into certain classes. Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald was also called to the stand. Many news reports, distracting attention from the important legal issues at hand, focused on the Colter vs. Fitzgerald dynamic – the star quarterback at odds with the coach who recruited and helped mold him into an NFL prospect.

Some observers looked askance at Colter’s actions, with one prominent columnist posing the question of when the “disgruntled former Wildcat” will regret “this little publicity tour?” The ruling handed down Wednesday – which will be appealed to the national board in Washington and could make its way to federal court – affirms Colter’s serving as The CAPA’s pointman is much more than a publicity tour. Not only did The CAPA win, it won  "every single claim," Colter told the Associated Press on Wednesday. In his 24-page decision, NLRB regional director Peter Sung Ohr, anticipating an appeal, wrote that NU football players on scholarship “fall squarely within (the) definition of employee.” The regional office’s decision, in other words, will not be easy to overturn.

Whether Ohr’s ruling stands, the formation of The CAPA will apply more pressure on the NCAA, which is already beset by multiple legal challenges. In all likelihood, Colter will be viewed as the leader of a movement that helped reform college sports. It may be difficult to imagine this now, but Colter could come to be seen as the Curt Flood of his generation, someone who challenged the status quo and helped usher in a fundamentally new system.

While plenty of NU fans will no doubt remember Colter’s exploits on the gridiron, his name will forever be linked to college sports’ first union and the way it changed how college sports are run. It is clear now that Colter did not take up this cause because he had an axe to grind with the university or its football coach. Colter, as well as other NU players, have expressed that they do not disapprove of the way they were treated by Fitzgerald or the football program. "You can have the best employer in the world and you still deserve basic protections and basic rights," Colter told the AP. "That's what this is all about. … It wasn't a complaint. It wasn't us filing this out of abuse or mistreatment or anything like that. This is what it is."

If Colter’s actions serve as impetus to revamp a fundamentally broken system, he should be recognized as an instigator for positive change. Still, it is too early to evaluate his legacy or what people will think of him years from now. What’s plain is Colter will be remembered for being more than just a great dual-threat quarterback at Northwestern.