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Do college athletes work for their school or play for their school?
That's the question raised by a group of Northwestern football players who Tuesday announced their intent to unionize and be recognized as employees under federal law.
Along with longtime college athlete advocate Ramogi Huma, former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter announced the formation of the College Athletes Players Association, which is backed by the United Steelworkers. Colter, who said the current system resembles a dictatorship, added it was time players had a seat at the table.
An undisclosed number of Northwestern players filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board asking to be certified. At issue: whether college athletes are employees.
"We're already paid in the form of a scholarship and stipend checks we get," Colter said. "That's dependent on us producing on the field, us providing an athletic service to the university. If we don't provide that service anymore, we won't have a scholarship anymore."
The NCAA, Big Ten Conference and Northwestern issued separate statements saying players are not employees.
Donald Remy, the NCAA's chief legal officer, said the attempt to unionize "undermines the purpose of college: an education."
But Colter noted the huge revenue streams pouring into college athletics, mostly because of football, and said NCAA athletes lack the basic necessities.
Among priorities for change: improved medical care, especially after players' careers are finished; funds for continuing educational opportunities; and scholarships that would cover the full cost of attendance for athletes.
Many of the players' stated goals track with initiatives favored by the five wealthiest, most high-profile conferences in the NCAA's Football Bowl Subdivision, and in part is the reason for a push by those leagues -- the Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and Southeastern conferences -- for greater legislative autonomy.
It was the major agenda item this month at the NCAA's annual convention. If the power conferences get their way, it's likely they'll push through rules changes that would include stipends to cover full cost of attendance, funds for continuing education and long-term medical care when needed.
Last fall, Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany referred to such items as "a fair package that fits for the 21st century."
In a statement, the Big Ten said it "does not believe that full-time students participating in intercollegiate athletics are employees of the universities that they attend.
"That said, the BigTen Conference has the utmost respect for both the legal system and the rights of the students to pursue their beliefs through that system."
But Huma said the potential NCAA governance changes, and any resulting changes to benefit athletes, wouldn't alter the underlying issues.
"Over the years, we've put them in this position," Huma said of the NCAA. "They didn't come to these suggestions by themselves. Right now, the NCAA is at a tipping point, and things are more visible. ... But they're still dodging the issues.
"We've seen anything the NCAA giveth, they can taketh away."
Colter said players didn't have input in any of the discussed changes.
"That's the problem," he said. "We believe we need to have an interest that's going to represent the players and negotiate and come to a collective agreement. That's really what this is all about."
Huma, a former UCLA football player, is also the founder of the National College Players Association.
Last fall, Colter was among several players who wrote the letters A.P.U., which stood for All Players United, on their uniforms during a game in an attempt to make a statement in favor of NCAA reform.
Colter said he contacted Huma over the summer to explore issues and said they discussed the idea of unionizing.
The future of the push is uncertain.
Huma and Colter, whose eligibility expired after the 2013 season, declined to disclose how many Northwestern players signed cards authorizing the attempt to form a union, though Colter told The Associated Press it was nearly 100%.
The NLRB's regional office in Chicago is expected to conduct a hearing in the next 10 days. Its decision either way probably would be appealed to the full NLRB and is likely to end up in the court system.
Recently, graduate students at New York University formed a union.
It's not an exact comparison, according to attorney Joseph Farelli, who said college athletes might have a more difficult case than graduate students, "who teach classes, grade papers and set office hours" like employees.
"I think it's a tougher call," said Farelli, a partner in the New York law firm of Pitta & Giblin with 19 years of experience in labor law.
Either way, the ruling would apply only to players at private universities.
Players at public schools fall under state labor laws. Huma wouldn't say whether there have been discussions with players at other schools.
But a favorable ruling by the NLRB -- or eventually, the courts -- would set significant precedent.
"If they rule that way, it's gonna really turn college athletics on its head," Farelli said.