For the first time in the history of college sports, athletes are asking to be represented by a labor union, taking formal steps on Tuesday to begin the process of being recognized as employees.
Ramogi Huma, president of the National College Players Association, filed a petition in Chicago on behalf of football players at Northwestern University, submitting the form at the regional office of the National Labor Relations Board.
Backed by the United Steelworkers union, Huma also filed union cards signed by an undisclosed number of Northwestern players with the NLRB -- the federal statutory body that recognizes groups that seek collective bargaining rights.
ESPN's "Outside The Lines" first broke the story.
"This is about finally giving college athletes a seat at the table," said Huma, a former UCLA linebacker who created the NCPA as an advocacy group in 2001. "Athletes deserve an equal voice when it comes to their physical, academic and financial protections."
Huma told "Outside The Lines" that the move to unionize players at Northwestern started with quarterback Kain Colter , who reached out to him last spring and asked for help in giving athletes representation in their effort to improve the conditions under which they play NCAA sports. Colter became a leading voice in regular NCPA-organized conference calls among players from around the country.
"The action we're taking isn't because of any mistreatment by Northwestern," Colter said. "We love Northwestern. The school is just playing by the rules of their governing body, the NCAA. We're interested in trying to help all players -- at USC, Stanford, Oklahoma State, everywhere. It's about protecting them and future generations to come.
"Right now the NCAA is like a dictatorship. No one represents us in negotiations. The only way things are going to change is if players have a union."
The NCAA responded with a statement from Chief Legal Officer Donald Remy, who said "student-athletes are not employees within any definition of the National Labor Relations Act" and that there is no existing employment relationships between the "NCAA, its affiliated institutions or student-athletes."
"This union-backed attempt to turn student-athletes into employees undermines the purpose of college: an education," Remy said in the statement. "Student-athletes are not employees, and their participation in college sports is voluntary. We stand for all student-athletes, not just those the unions want to professionalize."
In a statement, Northwestern said it supports dialogue around the issues that are important to the players, and the right of Colter and his teammates to have a voice in that dialogue. However, it also said it does not support the players organizing through a labor union.
"Northwestern believes that our student-athletes are not employees and collective bargaining is therefore not the appropriate method to address these concerns," said Jim Phillips, Northwestern vice president of athletics and recreation. "However, we agree that the health and academic issues being raised by our student-athletes and others are important ones that deserve further consideration."