Until now the push for collective-bargaining rights by college athletes has been confined to a regional office of the National Labor Relations Board, which last week handed an early victory to football players at Northwestern University in their bid to unionize.
But on Thursday, the two main leaders of the movement took their cause before members of Congress in an effort to pre-empt lobbying by the National Collegiate Athletic Association and to shape the contours of a burgeoning public debate.
"We wanted to play a little defense because, with this ruling, college athletes have asserted their rights," Ramogi Huma, president of the College Athletes Players Association, said at an gathering with reporters here on Thursday at the Aspen Institute. "The last thing we want to see is the NCAA use their lobbying power to change the laws."
Mr. Huma and Kain Colter, a former Northwestern quarterback and the face of the movement, met with a number of lawmakers this week, including the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada. They used the meetings to emphasize that they were angling for medical protection and expanded academic support for athletes, not player salaries, and to clarify how unions could help reshape college athletics.
Some critics have raised concerns that boosting benefits for football and men’s basketball players would undermine athletes in lesser-known sports who rely on football and basketball revenue for funding, and would cut into the gains in opportunities for female athletes that have come since the enactment of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.
Mr. Huma, though, discounted those fears, calling the Title IX argument an "unfounded scare tactic." He said the infrastructure of college sports is lavishly financed, and argued that players’ rights were a public-health issue.
"Are we financing systems in higher education that are being irresponsible with their bodies?" he asked, referring to the increased risk of brain trauma that football players face over many hours of high-contact practice.
Rep. Jan D. Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat whose district includes Northwestern’s campus, in Evanston, said in a statement on Thursday that the players were "not asking for ‘pay for play’ but simply for fair consideration for their health and educational needs."
Under current rules, Mr. Colter noted, it would be a violation of NCAA guidelines for a university to guarantee funding so that players could come back and finish their degrees, even though many wealthier athletic programs agree to such arrangements.
Some critics, like Sen. Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee, have also warned that unionized athletes might strike before high-profile games. Mr. Colter noted that college athletes could already walk off the field. Last fall a boycott by Grambling University football players forced the forfeit of a game, but also brought national attention to their complaints of substandard athletics facilities and other problems.
Leverage in Congress
Looming over the debate about the Northwestern players’ bid to unionize is what role the NCAA might play in shaping the outcome.
Although the association is not formally a party to the players’ NLRB case, which is now on appeal to the full National Labor Relations Board in Washington, the NCAA has publicly defended Northwestern’s position that athletes are not employees. It has also devoted considerable resources to defending its principles of amateurism, which have come under challenge in several high-profile lawsuits.
Given the NCAA’s enormous revenues and lobbying prowess, said Jay K. Reisinger, a Pittsburgh-based lawyer who focuses on sports law, Mr. Huma and Mr. Colter have reason to be concerned about its influence. But, he said, the issue has become visible enough that pro-union members of Congress could stand to gain from publicly aligning against the NCAA.
"Members of Congress can make life very difficult for the NCAA if they start to hold hearings," he said. "They have subpoena power. The NCAA’s books and records could be laid bare to see how much they’re really making, and who’s benefiting from the billions of dollars that are being generated."
Mr. Reisinger, who has represented Major League Baseball players during Congressional inquiries into steroid use, said the threat of holding hearings could compel the NCAA to compromise with the players over improving conditions.
A compromise might be especially attractive because of the uneven legal landscape that awaits the NCAA if players begin forming unions. NLRB decisions apply only to private universities; public universities are governed by state labor laws.
A spokesman for Northwestern, Alan K. Cubbage, said the university might send representatives to Capitol Hill to meet with lawmakers, but it hasn’t decided.
As the College Athletes Players Association works to expand its network of support, attention is turning to an expected April 25 vote by Northwestern football players on whether to join a union. Despite mounting criticism from some alumni and former football players, Mr. Colter said he expected support to be strong among his former teammates.
"These players aren’t voting truly for themselves," he said. "They’re voting for future generations, for 9-year-olds with dreams of playing college sports."
But the abuses that former players have endured also weigh heavily, Mr. Huma said. He remembered a teammate from his time playing football at UCLA, Donnie Edwards, who was struggling to make ends meet, even on a scholarship. When someone dropped groceries on Mr. Edwards’s doorstep after he told a radio host that he didn’t have enough food to eat, Mr. Edwards was suspended for one game.
"Coach is driving a Cadillac," Mr. Huma recalled, "and Donnie gets suspended over food."