A 2006 New York Times profile of wunderkind college football coach Pat Fitzgerald tells you a lot about how the Irish American deals with adversity.
Once the youngest coach in Division 1-A college football, by the time Fitzgerald was in his early thirties he’d had to deal with a number of shocking deaths in his personal and professional life.
As Times reporter John Eligon noted, “Fitzgerald's faith-based upbringing has helped him come to terms with the deaths. He is an Irish Catholic from Chicago's South Side. He cries behind closed doors but is typically able to move forward quickly, as was the case with the deaths of family members, said his father, Pat Fitzgerald Sr.”
Fast forward to 2014. Fitzgerald is at the center of a controversy thankfully not as somber, but still highly divisive. And given the central role Irish Americans have played in labor organizing, some might say Fitzgerald is betraying his roots.
Earlier this month, there was a media firestorm when the National Labor Relations Board decided Northwestern college football players had the right to form a players’ union. The bombshell ruling touched off a wide-ranging debate about whether or not college athletes should have more workplace protection rights -- and perhaps even if they should be paid.
Guess who is right in the middle of this debate? Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald.
Of course, as so often happens with hot stories in the media, the debate quickly cooled off. But that’s about to change because later this month, on April 25, Northwestern players are actually going to vote on whether or not they want to become part of a college athlete’s union.
“The players will cast ballots on whether to organize under the College Athletes Players Association, known as CAPA. CAPA took the lead in pushing for the right to form the nation's first college athletes' union at Northwestern,” ESPN.com reported.
Student athletes leading the union movement say they don’t necessarily want to get paid (beyond their scholarships), but simply want “basic protections” in the form of better medical coverage as well as a plan to deal with the ongoing problem of concussions.
That’s not enough for Pat Fitzgerald, who has come out against the college players’ union.
"All this can be handled with communication. It's about trust," Fitzgerald said about issues specified by the College Athletes Players Association. "I just do not believe we need a third party between our players and our coaches, staff and administrators. ... Whatever they need, we will get them.”
This prompted critics such as Nation blogger David Zirin to tab Fitzgerald a “union buster.”
That may be harsh, but it’s also simplistic for Fitzgerald to think his players should simply “trust” Northwestern to do the right thing -- especially if they get injured. Do you think Fitzgerald “trusts” that Northwestern will treat him fair if his team starts losing every game?
In the end, the issue of money cannot -- and should not -- be avoided. If big-time colleges are raking in the cash (enough to pay coaches such as Fitzgerald over $2 million a year), why shouldn’t the players -- the stars spectators actually pay to see -- receive some of that money, whether it be a salary or pension or top-level medical benefits?
It’s tempting to say student-athletes should be happy with their scholarships. But the real winners here are colleges (who rake in ticket and merchandising cash) as well as the NFL, which relies on college football as a free farm system, yet still treats the vast majority of its players like interchangeable circus animals.
All that being said, a number of Northwestern players have publicly said they plan to vote against the union and hinted that perhaps a majority of players feel the same way.
Pat Fitzgerald, apparently, can be very persuasive.
Stay tuned until April 25.
(Contact “Sidewalks” at tdeignan.blogspot.com)