CHICAGO — Northwestern football coach Pat Fitzgerald testified for three hours Friday about a push by his players to form the nation’s first union for college athletes, sometimes putting himself awkwardly at odds with his senior quarterback.
Sporting a tie in team-color purple, Fitzgerald answered questions before the National Labor Relations Board, which must decide in the coming weeks if the football players qualify as employees under US law. If so, they have rights to unionize.
The decision is being closely watched across the country since a decision in favor of an athletes’ union could change the landscape of college athletics. The NCAA, Big Ten Conference, and Northwestern all maintain that college athletes cannot be placed in the same category as factory workers, truck drivers, or other employees in the traditional sense.
Union supporters, however, say football generates millions of dollars in revenue and is a commercial enterprise reliant on laborers — the players.
Fitzgerald, a former star for Northwestern, said his program is about far more than football.
‘‘We want [players] to be the best they can be . . . athletically, academically, socially . . . to be a champion in life,’’ he said. He tells players, he said, that academics ‘‘is their priority.’’
Quarterback Kain Colter, who has exhausted his eligibility, painted a very different picture.
Testifying earlier this week for the proposed union, the newly formed College Athletes Players Association, Colter said a player’s performance on the field was more important to the school than his performance in class.
‘‘You fulfill the football requirement and, if you can, you fit in academics,’’ Colter said. He said he abandoned his own aspiration to take pre-med courses because of the enormous time demands of football.
Fitzgerald, however, said he’s known players who ended up going to medical school; he also cited his time juggling football and academics when he was an All-America linebacker at Northwestern in the 1990s.
Union attorney Gary Kohlman suggested that Fitzgerald’s primary mission was to prepare his players to win games.
‘‘I’m trying to teach them to be prepared for life,’’ the coach responded. ‘‘Football is a part of that.’’