CHICAGO — Calling the NCAA a dictatorship, Northwestern's quarterback and the United Steelworkers announced plans Tuesday to form the first labor union for college athletes, the latest salvo in the bruising fight over whether amateur players should be paid.
Quarterback Kain Colter detailed the College Athletes Players Association at a news conference in Chicago, flanked by leaders of a Steelworkers union that has agreed to pay legal bills for the effort. The NCAA and the Big Ten Conference criticized the move and said that college athletes cannot be considered employees.
Colter said the NCAA dictates terms to its hundreds of member schools and tens of thousands of college athletes, leaving players with little or no say about financial compensation questions or how to improve their own safety. That college football generates hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue only bolstered the argument for a union, he said.
"How can they call this amateur athletics when our jerseys are sold in stores and the money we generate turns coaches and commissioners into multimillionaires?" Colter asked.
"The current model represents a dictatorship," added Colter, who just finished his senior year with the Wildcats. "We just want a seat at the table."
Colter said "nearly 100 percent" of his teammates backed the drive to unionize. Only he spoke publicly, saying the others wanted to keep a low profile.
CAPA's president, former UCLA football player Ramogi Huma, said a union would help ensure that scholarships, at minimum, cover all living expenses as well as tuition. Currently, he said, scholarship athletes come up thousands of dollars short each year.
A union would also push for full medical coverage that could carry over past college.
Though the effort to form a union among college athletes appears without precedent, a recent case may help their cause. More than 600 graduate teaching and research assistants at New York University voted to form a union in December and to affiliate with the United Auto Workers. It was the first such union in the country to win recognition by a private university.
For now, the push to unionize college athletes is focused only on private schools like Northwestern. But 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.
If the players succeed, a union could fundamentally change college sports, said Brian Rauch, a New York labor attorney. He said it could raise the prospect of strike by disgruntled players or lockouts by schools.
John Infante, who runs the Bylaw Blog, a site devoted to legal issues affecting college sports, said "i the athletes get a total victory here, they get made into employees. That means collective-bargaining rights, workman's comp and unemployment insurance. And who knows where that leads?"
The NCAA has been under increasing scrutiny over its amateurism rules. It is fighting a class-action federal lawsuit filed by former players seeking a cut of the billions of dollars earned from live broadcasts, memorabilia sales and 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. Critics say that isn't nearly enough and insults players who help bring in millions of dollars.
The NCAA issued a statement 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."
In a statement, the Big Ten said it "does not believe that full-time students participating in intercollegiate athletics are employees. … That said, the Big Ten Conference has the utmost respect for both the legal system and the rights of students to pursue their beliefs through that system."