College athletes on Tuesday took a bold step toward gaining more bargaining power in the National Collegiate Athletic Association, by attempting to form a labor union for big-time football and basketball players.
Calling the NCAA a "dictatorship" that stamps on athletes' rights and fails to provide adequate long-term health care or educational assistance, football players at Northwestern University petitioned the Chicago office of the National Labor Relations Board to be recognized as employees.
The move, organized by Ramogi Huma, a former UCLA linebacker and founder of the National College Players Association, was prompted by concerns raised by Kain Colter, a Northwestern quarterback who was active in player protests this past season.
Speaking at a news conference on Tuesday, Mr. Colter said that he and his teammates were happy with their treatment at Northwestern but frustrated by the NCAA's inability to provide such protections as guaranteed scholarships and more money for players to finish their degrees.
In a letter posted online, Northwestern's players said they "recognize the need to eliminate unjust NCAA rules that create physical, academic, and financial hardships for college athletes." They said that "to remain silent while players are denied justice is to be complicit in inflicting injustice on future generations of college athletes."
Mr. Huma, who started his organization more than a decade ago to improve conditions for players, said the NCAA's resistance to negotiating with his group’s 17,000 members on issues like concussion management and transfer restrictions had spurred him to take action.
He said that the players' intention in forming a union—the College Athletes Players Association—was not to force universities to pay them, but he did not rule out bargaining for that right.
"This is about giving college athletes a seat at the table," said Mr. Huma, whose group led protests at this month's national-championship football game and at the recent NCAA convention. "Athletes deserve an equal voice when it comes to their physical and academic well-being."
The NCAA, whose colleges have recently discussed giving athletes more rights and better health and safety benefits, defended its amateurism principles. In a statement, the association said that athletes are "not employees within any definition of the National Labor Relations Act" and had no right to organize.
"This union-backed attempt to turn student-athletes into employees undermines the purpose of college: an education," its statement said. "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."
Jim Phillips, Northwestern's vice president for athletics and recreation, said in a written statement that the university teaches its students to be leaders and independent thinkers, and that Tuesday's action "demonstrates that they are doing so."
He added that Northwestern believes that its athletes are not employees but that the "health and academic issues being raised by our student-athletes and others are important ones that deserve further consideration."
Representatives of the United Steelworkers union, who is backing the proposal, said at the news conference that their lawyers stand behind it. They believe that college players will be deemed employees and that their scholarships represent payment in return for services.
But some labor-relations experts said that players would have difficulty making that case.
"I would be very, very surprised if they won," said Ronald G. Ehrenberg, a professor of industrial and labor relations and economics at Cornell University. "If they do win, it would potentially lead to an explosion of changes in higher education."
It's unclear if college athletes have ever sought to unionize before, said William A. Herbert, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions, at the City University of New York’s Hunter College. It is also not known whether the National Labor Relations Board would view athletes the same way it has viewed graduate students, who have long tried to unionize.
Some private colleges have allowed graduate students to form unions—most recently, at New York University. But based on a 2004 ruling by the National Labor Relations Board, graduate students at private universities do not have the right to form labor unions.
In that case, which involved students at Brown University, the labor board ruled that graduate teaching assistants are primarily students and have a mostly educational, not economic, relationship with their university. (The labor board's decisions apply only to private colleges and universities; state labor laws govern public institutions, some of which have been unionized for decades.)
Regardless of what the labor board decides, the action taken by Northwestern's players should give colleges a chance to talk about the merits of athletes' economic situations, said Charles T. Clotfelter, a professor of public policy and economics at Duke University and the author of Big-Time Sports in American Universities.
"I'm always advocating doing studies and having conversations on things that some people think are completely impractical," he said. "It's what we ought to be doing in higher education, because sometimes surprises happen."
Correction (1/29/2014, 11:55 a.m.): This article originally misidentified Pat Fitzgerald as Northwestern University's athletic director. Mr. Fitzgerald is the head football coach. The athletic director is Jim Phillips. The article has been updated to reflect this correction.