“Where are they now?” tales can be uplifting. Kain Colter’s is not.
Colter, along with being a former football star at Northwestern University, was a pioneer in the movement to get college athletes paid. So these should be high times for him. On June 21, 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a unanimous opinion in NCAA v. Alston, a case from the same players rights movement that Colter courageously spearheaded for a time.
The Supreme Court justices all agreed that the NCAA can no longer prohibit schools from giving athletes money for education-related expenses, such as the cost of a laptop computer. The opinion ignored more momentous matters in the decades-long debate, including whether the NCAA can continue to forbid athletes from personally profiting from their name and likeness and stop universities from putting players on the payroll. (Much of that was made moot just one week later, when the NCAA declared for the first time that athletes can indeed benefit financially from their name and likeness, as Colter had long advocated.)
Despite the shortcomings, the Supreme Court decision nevertheless was seen as dealing a big blow to the NCAA’s monopolistic ways, and hailed by news organizations as “landmark” and “historic.” The same sort of words were thrown Colter’s way not that many years ago. His football stardom wasn’t a surprise, considering his bloodlines. Colter’s grandfather, Cleveland Colter II, was a multi-sport schoolboy superstar and all-state running back in Arizona in the 1960s. His uncle, Cleveland “Cadillac” Colter III, was an All-American safety in college playing alongside Mark Carrier at USC. His dad, Spencer Colter, played on the University of Colorado’s co-national championship team in 1990 and is a longtime high school football coach in the Denver area. Kain Colter played for his father on the team at Boulder High School as an underclassman, until Spencer Colter was fired in 2009 for what was reported as alleged “multiple profanity-laced tirades” at school events. In perhaps his first foray into athletic activism, Kain Colter joined fellow Boulder High students at rallies demanding the coach be reinstated. Those efforts, alas, failed to get the school to reverse its decision.
Kain Colter transferred from Boulder High to Cherry Creek High School outside of Denver after his father’s firing. He led the football team at his new school to the Colorado state championship game in his junior year, and was named to several local and statewide all-star teams. Stanford offered him a scholarship, and he gave a verbal commitment to Jim Harbaugh, then-head coach of the Cardinal. But after Colter missed several games at Cherry Creek as a senior with a torn labrum, Stanford rescinded its offer. Colter would later say the shoulder injury caused the school to renege on their deal, and that Stanford’s rejection taught him a lot about players’ rights, or the lack thereof. In a 2014 interview with ESPN, David Shaw, who was Stanford’s offensive coordinator during Harbaugh’s reign, said he was in charge of Colter’s recruitment and denied Colter’s injury played any part in the school’s change of heart. Shaw offered no replacement excuse for the reneging, however.
So Colter signed with Northwestern, which had been recruiting him for years. As a college freshman in 2010 he got limited playing time but showed his most promise as a ball carrier. But injuries to others led coaches to give him a chance as starting quarterback his sophomore season, and he kept the job for as long as he was healthy. He was once considered the team’s best runner, receiver, and passer. He also got media attention for his leadership and extracurricular activities, mainly an internship at Goldman Sachs. “I think the best part of Kain is his character,” his Northwestern coach, Pat Fitzgerald, told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2012, as Colter’s star was rising nationally. “He’s just a special young man.”
On New Year’s Day 2013, Colter led Northwestern over Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl, giving the school its first bowl win in 64 years. Then the Wildcats opened Colter’s senior season with four straight wins, and expectations for the football team at the historically non-football school were so high that the ESPN GameDay crew came to Evanston in early October 2013 to hype the matchup with the similarly undefeated Big 10 Goliath, Ohio State. The game ended with some controversy, as referees ruled that Colter was stopped short on a fourth down play late in the fourth quarter and with NU down by four points. Northwestern’s season fell apart after the OSU loss, as the Wildcats lost seven of their final eight games. Colter’s college career ended in a November loss to Michigan State, when he took a hit to the head that was ruled targeting, and he was diagnosed with his second concussion of the year. Colter didn’t get drafted in the 2014 NFL Draft, but over the next three seasons he tried out for three teams (Minnesota Vikings, Los Angeles Rams, and Buffalo Bills) as a running back and receiver. While he never made an active NFL roster, Colter did spend a year on the Vikings practice squad.
But Colter’s deeds off the field proved more memorable. Colter was for a time the most celebrated student activist in the land. The notoriety came while attempting to unionize the Northwestern football team. He pushed for his school to give players the same freedom to receive salaries and benefits that rank-and-file employees had. He formed the College Athletes Players Association during his last semester as a Northwestern student. He lobbied in the halls of Congress and spoke at the Aspen Institute. He was a big deal.
“Kain Colter is a hero,” Rick Telander, a former writer at Sports Illustrated and now a senior columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times, told a gathering of fellow Northwestern alumni in 2014.
Colter’s campaign reached a peak in February 2017, when Richard Griffin, general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), sent out a memo saying that football players at Northwestern could indeed be classified as employees of the school under federal law. That opinion from NLRB headquarters supported a 2014 ruling from Peter Sung Ohr, a regional NLRB director, that Northwestern players were union eligible.
But Griffin, an appointee of President Barack Obama, was replaced as general counsel later in 2017 by a President Trump appointee, Peter Robb. And shortly after taking the NLRB position, Robb retracted the contents of Griffin’s momentous memo, thereby reversing any federal government support for Colter’s campaign. The NLRB ultimately never recognized a players union at Northwestern.
In the years after leaving the school, Colter often said the organizing efforts destroyed his relationship with Fitzgerald, the formerly fawning coach. Nevertheless, Colter’s reputation as a monumental figure in the crusade to get pay for those who play was set. (In his first week in office, President Joe Biden fired Robb as NLRB’s general counsel and gave the job to Peter Sung Ohr, a hiring assumed by some Northwestern observers to not be coincidental and taken as a sign that the new administration remembers Colter’s brave fight.) But one example of his stout standing: In 2019, Mother Jones called Colter a “jock revolutionary” while naming him to the magazine’s “Heroes of the 2010s” roster. The same movement that Colter once led motivated ex-West Virginia running back Shawne Alston to become the lead plaintiff in 2014 in a case against the NCAA. And take it all the way to the Supreme Court, we now know.
That was then, however. Over the last few years, as the uprising Colter helped spark got more and more attention, he all but disappeared from public view. Yet public records paint an ugly picture of what Colter, now 29 years old, has been up to.
On the very day the high court in the nation’s capital released its opinion in NCAA v. Alston, Colter was appearing virtually in a Denver court facing domestic violence charges and other criminal counts. He was in court again on the same sad matters a week later, the day the NCAA was announcing the new profiteering freedoms it would be granting athletes.
Colter’s criminal cases stemmed from a series of arrests in his native Colorado over the last year.
Boulder County court documents show that Colter was arrested and charged with criminal trespassing, a felony, on April 23, 2020. Police said that they were called to a home in the town of Erie after Colter refused a demand from family members that he leave. Police were told that Colter had been fighting with his father, and cops said they found “evidence of a physical altercation: a door had been ripped from its hinges and [his father] was found restraining [Kain Colter] in a bathtub.”
Kain Colter filed a related civil lawsuit against his mother, Stacy Colter, in Boulder County on July 9, 2020, alleging that he’d gone to the house because she was withholding property from him. Among the items he wanted his mother to turn over to him were the cremated remains of a dog that had been euthanized by order of Boulder County officials in April 2020 after attacking another animal while Kain Colter was walking her. Stacy Colter filed a written response to the lawsuit that is laden with equally soul-crushing details, amid tales of violence, allegations of substance abuse, and pleas that her son get help for suspected mental illness. She told the court that she’d witnessed Kain Colter behaving erratically since early 2019, when he returned to Colorado from Wisconsin after briefly working for that state’s branch of the American Federation of Teachers, a labor union for educators. She described being called by a neighbor who was worried about Kain Colter because he’d spent the previous night in a car parked outside the family home and “didn’t seem together mentally” when he left the vehicle. Stacy Colter said that five days before he was arrested at her home, Kain Colter had instigated another altercation with his family at the same address that was also broken up by police. Following the earlier fight, Stacy Colter told the court, police detained Kain Colter and placed him “on a 72-hour mental health hold” out of concern he’d harm himself.
On Sept. 10, 2020, Kain Colter filed a motion to dismiss his own lawsuit “without prejudice”—meaning he could refile the suit at a later date—stating that his mother had “returned [the dog’s] remains to me.”
Colter was arrested again on Nov. 2, 2020, this time in Denver. Cops said Colter was seen vandalizing a house where he formerly lived. Colter had removed his belongings from the property months earlier, the police report said, but after moving out he had been seen “living in a tent” in the backyard at that address for a brief period. A report filed by Denver police officer Claire Isaacson said a witness saw Colter breaking a lock off a “fuse box” on the property, and that Colter then “used a garden tool to tear off the security camera that was screwed into the brick wall at the back of the house and threw it in a garbage can.” According to the police report, the lock had been placed on the fuse box only a day earlier because Colter had “repeatedly” shown up to turn off power to the house, ostensibly to deactivate the security system. The report said the woman living at the house, who Colter identified to police as his wife, told police that Colter’s actions “interfered with [her] ability to feel safe, secure, and undisturbed.” Colter was charged with disturbing the peace, which was classified in this instance as a “domestic violence offense.” A Denver court issued a restraining order restricting Colter’s contact with the woman.
He did not stay away. Colter was arrested at the same address on Dec. 13, 2020. A Denver police report said that Colter had gotten into a fight with the same woman. “During the argument, Colter picked up an LCD TV and threw it against the victim’s vehicle causing damage,” the report said. Colter then “shoved [the victim] against the garage door with same LCD TV,” causing injuries to her head and neck. When Denver police showed up, Colter locked himself in his car and refused commands to leave the vehicle. Police broke out the car’s windows and arrested Colter. He was charged with assault, violation of a court order, and disturbing the peace, all of which were classified as domestic violence counts, and also interfering with a police officer.
Colter was arrested again on March 20, 2021, in downtown Denver, outside the county jail, and charged with trespassing. He later tweeted that a sheriff had him arrested because Colter had visited the jail and was “trying to produce bail bond contracts for my ol’ cellblock.”
In court filings in the Boulder case, Colter was described as “indigent.” In a tweet after the November 2020 arrest, Colter wrote of being taken to a homeless shelter located inside the Denver Coliseum, though it was unclear how long he stayed there. He has claimed on Twitter that he’s been “blackballed” from employment because of his record as a labor activist. He also tweeted earlier this year that he suffers from CTE, a progressive brain disease caused by concussions and repeated blows to the head that is known to have plagued large numbers of former football players.
The felony trespassing charge from the April 2020 incident at the family home in Erie, Colo., was dropped by Boulder County prosecutors in March 2021. Whitney Stark, the public defender who represented Colter in that case, told Defector that prosecutors “didn’t feel that there was any purpose in moving forward.”
Colter did not respond to requests for comment.
The cases against Colter resulting from the three Denver arrests remain active in Denver County courts. In a virtual court hearing earlier this month, Judge Andre Rudolph told Colter that he faced a jail sentence of up to 300 days and a $999 fine on each charge. As has been the case since the pandemic hit, the wheels of justice are moving slow for Colter and all concerned. Colter was only recently assigned a public defender by the Denver County courts, after months of wrangling between Colter and judges over whether the lawyers from the normal public defender pool were too conflicted by prior professional dealings with the woman in the police report to properly represent him. At a recent hearing on the domestic violence counts in the Denver County courts held while he was not being represented by an attorney, Colter made a motion to the court requesting a change of venue for his trial on the domestic abuse charges, citing media attention to his cases. “As far as I’m aware the cases haven’t received publicity,” the judge said, then denied Colter’s motion.
Colter has occasionally used social media to call attention to his arrests, and also to taunt his former partner. In March, he tweeted a screen capture of a notification that she’d blocked him on Twitter, alongside a comment that he was performing “spousal maintenance” to mark what he said was their wedding anniversary.
The woman named in the police reports as Colter’s victim did not respond to requests for comment for this story. (As the alleged victim in a domestic violence dispute, Defector is not publishing her name.)
In a since-deleted tweet from March, the woman designated as the victim in Denver police reports wrote that she was not being provided protection from Colter. And in May, she posted photos of Colter that she indicated were taken at the address that the restraining order issued in November barred him from visiting. She has also spoken up at recent virtual hearings for Colter’s cases to plead for the court to pressure him to obey the restraining order, and offering to submit video evidence to the court of several appearances by Colter at her door in violation of the order.
“I recognize that I deserve to be free from harassments during the pendency of the cases,” she told the court earlier this month. “Someone needs to speak up for victims!”
Judges had previously denied her request to deal in any way with the restraining orders, citing Colter’s lack of an attorney. At a June 28 hearing, however, Judge Chelsea Malone of Denver County Courts listened as the woman in the report said that she’d repeatedly filmed Colter coming to her home in violation of the orders, and that Colter had also “come to my workplace dozens of different times,” and that he had left “disturbing” voicemail messages for her.
The court also was told that Denver police issued an additional arrest warrant for Colter on several domestic violence counts on June 10, though few other specifics on that latest case were yet available in the county’s database. Colter’s newest court-appointed attorney, Travis Zeigler, did not enter guilty or not guilty pleas on behalf of his client at the June 28 hearing, saying he needed more information about the case. (As of deadline Zeigler had not responded to a request from Defector for comment for this story,)
Judge Malone ordered Colter to appear again in the same court on Aug. 5. The judge mandated that Colter stay at least “100 yards” from the woman in the report and prohibited him from attempting to contact her through any electronic means through the next court date. The judge also ordered that Colter immediately be placed on a GPS system so his whereabouts could be tracked. Zeigler told the court that his client “is homeless right now [and] he is living out of his vehicle,” and said that Colter doesn’t have “the financial means to pay for a GPS device.” The GPS order stood, however.