Calling the NCAA a "dictatorship," a handful of Northwestern football players announced Tuesday they are forming the first labor union for college athletes -- one they hope will eventually represent players nationwide.
Quarterback Kain Colter detailed the College Athletes Players Association at a news conference in Chicago, flanked by leaders of United Steelworkers union, who are ending their organizing expertise to the effort. Colter said the NCAA dictates terms to its hundreds of member schools and thousands of college athletes, leaving players with little or no say about financial compensation questions or how to improve their own safety.
"The current model represents a dictatorship," he said.
CAPA's president, former UCLA football player Ramogi Huma, said it is an issue of fairness for a game that generates billions "off the players' talent." Not only don't college athletes get paid, he said, but scholarships typically don't cover many basic living expenses.
For now, the push is to unionize only applies to private schools like Northwestern -- though large public universities, which are subject to different sets of regulations, could follow, said Huma, who is also the head of the National College Players Association he founded in 2001 to lobby for the interests of college athletes.
"This will be the first domino," Huma said.
The effort will be closely watched. The NCAA has been under increasing scrutiny over its amateurism rules and is currently in court, fighting a class-action federal lawsuit in California filed by former players seeking a cut of the billions of dollars earned from live broadcasts and memorabilia sales, along with video games, and multiple lawsuits filed by players who say the organization failed to adequately protect them from debilitating head injuries.
NCAA President Mark Emmert and others have pushed for a $2,000-per-player stipend to help athletes defray some of their expenses, but critics say that isn't nearly enough and insults players who help bring in millions of dollars to their schools and conferences.
Last season, Colter and football players from Georgia and Georgia Tech had the letters APU -- All Players United -- written on their gear during games as a show of solidarity in an effort organized by the NCPA. At the time, the NCAA said it welcomed an "open and civil debate regarding all aspects of college athletics."
The NCAA issued a statement Tuesday making clear where it stands on the athletes' quest to form a union.
"Student-athletes are not employees," NCAA chief legal officer Donald Remy said. "We are confident the National Labor Relations Board will find in our favor, as there is no right to organize student-athletes."
He added: "This union-backed attempt to turn student-athletes into employees undermines the purpose of college: an education."
The athletes' first step is to apply for certification by the National Labor Relations Board, specifically on behalf of the Northwestern players. Later, the goal is to expand to include athletes at other schools and in other sports.
The key issue the board must resolve is whether the football players are employees as defined by federal labor law, said United Steelworkers official Tim Waters. If they're deemed employees, he said, they would have the legal right to organize.
"It's crystal clear that college football players are employees," he said, arguing most put in a 40-hour work week and create revenue, albeit not for themselves. "Football players are not complaining. ... They are simply identifying this for what it is -- pay for play."
Huma said there is no reason to believe the effort will end up downgrading the quality of college sports.
"Treating players better is only going to improve the product," he said. "This is not going to change what is all good in college sports."