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Northwestern Unionization: How will the Players Vote?

Northwestern players faced a multitude of questions regarding unionization Saturday. They are scheduled to vote April 25 on whether or not to unionize, with the NLRB needing over 50 percent of votes in favor. But while some interesting tidbits surfaced about how that vote might play out, the situation is as murky as ever. Here’s a rundown of what we heard:

Note: for coach Pat Fitzgerald’s comments on unionization, read a full transcript of his post-practice interview here.

What has gone on behind closed doors this past week?

One thing is clear: the upcoming union vote has been a topic of discussion within the program.

“[Fitz] did meet with us as a team to talk about it,” said senior running back Venric Mark. “He didn’t go into any great details, he just gave the baseline of what’s going on, so that the younger guys can understand what’s going on – if they haven’t taken it upon themselves to educate themselves. But legally he’s not allowed to tell us what to vote, what not to vote.”

Fitgerald has come out firmly against a union, but he says – and the players confirm – that all he has done is try to “educate” the players and give them the “facts.” Those were the two banner words for the day.

Incoming freshman defensive back Parrker Westphal said there has also been meeting and discussion between players. “But nobody is trying to influence each other,” he said.

“We are getting information from both sides,” said senior center Brandon Vitable. “I’m gathering information, as everybody else should be doing.” Mark added that the dynamic of having a coach and former teammate on polar opposite sides of the issue is “a little weird.”

Fitzgerald and Mark both said that players, especially underclassmen, have been coming to them with questions about unionization. While Fitzgerald tries to educate them, Mark says his message is this:

“I’m not here to persuade you one way or the other. I think that they should educate themselves. As men, they need to take a stance.”

Westphal maintained that the team made a decision amongst themselves to refrain from disclosing any information. Mark said the situation has been left as follows:

“We haven’t really sat down and said, ‘hey, what do we all want to do?’ We just all talked about it, and everybody is going to formulate their own opinion and take their own stance.”

Some players have come to their decisions. Others have not yet done so.

Siemian and Mark fit into the former category.

“I don’t support [a union],” Siemian said. “At this university, I’m really fortunate to be in the position I am, and I don’t think the union is the answer for my team or my university. I came here, coach Fitz recruited me, came into my house, and I believed in him and the school 100 percent. I’ve been treated unbelievably, far exceeding my expectations.

Mark made it clear he feels similarly. “Me personally,” he said, “I just hope the NCAA understands that some things do need to change. But at the end of the day, we do not need a third party coming in between us and Northwestern.

“I think it’s clear that Northwestern treats us fairly well. Some things do need to change, but we do not need a third party to come in here.”

Other players were less straightforward in their reasoning, but did seem to be leaning towards voting ‘no.’ “I’m gathering information, as everybody else should be doing,” Vitable said. “I have strong beliefs against some things and for some things. I’m trying to do the best job to [help] my teammates to make the right decision.”

Despite hearing more ‘no’s than ‘yesses,’ we still have no idea how the vote will turn out.

Don’t be too quick to draw conclusions. What we heard Saturday was an incredibly small sample size of all players with a vote, so we are nowhere close to knowing anything definitive.

Also, consider the motives of different parties here. The football program can control whom it makes available for comment after practice. Saturday, Siemian and Mark – two players outspoken in their anti-union opinions – were singled out for on-camera interviews. Speculate however you want, but it’s very possible that some players were chosen based on their stance on the issue.

Also, many players’ decisions have not yet been made. There’s still a lot of time (19 days) between now and the 25th, when the vote is scheduled to take place. Players leaning towards ‘no’ could be swayed in the other direction, and vice versa. And as Westphal said, any group decision is likely to remain private until the vote takes place.

“[The decision is]: is [a union] what’s best for Northwestern University and Northwestern University football? That’s what I think it comes down to. Is it best for me in this situation, on this team?”

Those were the words of Vitable, speaking about how he is going about tackling the issue. And that seems to generally lend towards an anti-union point of view.

After all, a big part of Colter’s and CAPA’s pursuing unionization was that it could change college football and college sports forever. A major reason to favor a union would be a view that extends beyond an individual’s personal situation, and understands the possible benefits for future generations of college athletes.

If the thinking of other Northwestern players is in line with that of Vitable – a senior leader and an influential in the locker room – in focusing on their own situations, that’s bad news for CAPA.

Is the union situation a distraction for the players? And could that influence their vote?

Some players insisted the union discussion has not been a distraction, but that seems unlikely. Even those like Siemian who said so talked about the relief of getting out on the field, referring to it as “a good escape.”

Even just the media questioning after practice can play it’s part. After a full two hours of practice, Fitzgerald and many players fielded questions, but some – including Fitz – didn’t even get one about actual football.

Vitable admitted that some players’ attention perhaps has been slightly diverted. “It is a distraction if you allow it to be,” he said. “Today was a rough practice for a lot of guys because they were thinking about other things. If we have all this stuff hanging around, it’s hard not to [think about it], so I think it will help when it passes.”

So could this attitude influence the vote? If the players predominantly have their own best interests in mind, it surely could.

“I would like to personally get past this,” Vitable said, “so we can focus on what we want to do as a team. And that’s get back to football, and make sure we’re putting our efforts towards football and not taking away from that.”

Siemian, who refused to take more than one union-related question, explained his attitude succinctly. “What’s important for this team is being able to win a Big Ten Championship. I don’t think a union can do it, and it might hurt us in that goal.”