Football players from Northwestern University announced on Tuesday their plans to join a new labor union being formed for college athletes, an unprecedented move that was first reported by ESPN's Outside the Lines.
According to union officials, an "overwhelming majority" of players on the Northwestern squad have signed cards in favor of union representation, although the group did not disclose exact numbers. Ramogi Huma, president of the would-be union, called the College Athletes Players Association, told ESPN that he submitted the cards to the National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency that oversees union elections.
The players' petition starts an administrative process that will almost surely lead to legal challenges from the school and the National Collegiate Athletic Association -- and could potentially change the dynamics of big-time college sports. At the very least, it will surely fuel the national debate surrounding "amateurism" in college sports and the question of whether or not such athletes should be considered employees.
The unionization efforts are being spearheaded by Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, who made news in September when he wore armbands emblazoned with "APU" -- which stands for All Players United -- in a game against Maine. The purpose of the protest was to say that athletes want a greater voice in what they consider working conditions.
"This is about finally giving college athletes a seat at the table," Huma, a former UCLA linebacker, told ESPN. "Athletes deserve an equal voice when it comes to their physical, academic and financial protections."
The idea of college athletes being paid is a controversial one, and the players aren't yet calling for wages. Instead, they want better medical coverage and guarantees on scholarships for players who get hurt -- the sort of responsibilities raised in Taylor Branch's widely read feature for the Atlantic, "The Shame of College Sports," which chronicled the exploitation of players that generate significant money for their schools.
The Northwestern players have the backing of the Steelworkers Union, which is known for its organizing of workers well outside the steel industry. The union will not be taking dues from the players but it will lend technical support, according to ESPN.
In a sign of the fight to come, the NCAA's chief legal officer, Donald Remy, released a statement Tuesday panning the move to unionize.
"This union-backed attempt to turn student-athletes into employees undermines the purpose of college: an education. Student-athletes are not employees, and their participation in college sports is voluntary," Remy wrote. "We stand for all student-athletes, not just those the unions want to professionalize."