College athletes apply to form union

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A group of football players at Northwestern University has filed to join a labor union -- a first in college athletics -- and they have some help from a big player in Pittsburgh.

The United Steelworkers union, based Downtown, has pledged to cover all legal costs for the College Athletes Players Association, a newly formed union the Northwestern athletes are petitioning to join. CAPA filed paperwork Tuesday with the Chicago chapter of the National Labor Relations Board on behalf of the football players.

If successful, the union would open the door for football and basketball players at major private universities to organize. Though public schools are governed by state labor organizations, not the NLRB, a win for the Northwestern students might set a precedent that extends to the states, said Tim Waters, United Steelworkers political director.

"The NCAA is just one big massive train wreck that's happening right before our eyes, and the athletes decided they're going to have a seat at the table," Mr. Waters said. "If players don't have a seat at the table, then they're going to be the meal."

The NLRB's Chicago chapter will make the initial ruling in the case, though an appeal to the Washington office is likely. From there, the matter could move to the federal court system.

The unionization effort marks the newest stage in an effort by student athletes to seek a bigger share of the more than $9 billion generated annually by Division I college athletics. The union said schools have ignored athletes' pleas for concussion overhaul, enhanced health coverage and more help in the classroom.

But eventually, the question will move to whether college athletes should be paid beyond the scholarships and stipends they receive. What the case boils down to is whether scholarship college athletes are employees of the university. The union asserts they are.

"Players receive payments labeled athletic scholarships in return for generating billions of dollars -- with a 'B' -- and exposure for their schools," said United Steelworkers president Leo Gerard during a news conference on Tuesday. "They're told when and what to eat. They're told where they can and can't live. ... Football players aren't complaining about this arrangement. They are correctly identifying this as pay for play."

The NCAA, college athletics' largest governing body, disagrees.

"This union-backed attempt to turn student-athletes into employees undermines the purpose of college: an education," Donald Remy, the NCAA's chief legal officer, said in a 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."

Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, who finished his senior season, helped found the new union with the help of Ramogi Huma, who was president of the National College Players Association, a California advocacy group. Mr. Huma will serve as president of the new union.

Mr. Colter declined to say how many of his teammates signed cards seeking representation but indicated it was an "overwhelming majority." At least 30 percent of a labor force must support unionization in order to involve the NLRB.

Michael Sanserino:, 412-263-1969 and Twitter @msanserino.

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