STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
As we start this next story, let's remember that college football is big business - TV contracts, million-dollar coaching salaries, game-day revenues and more. Everybody profits except the players, who may get treated like royalty and get all sorts of benefits on campus but technically, are not supposed to be paid. So are they students, or are they employees risking their health and the service of a big business?
Football players at Northwestern University believe it's the latter, and they have voted to form a collegiate players' union, a move the NCAA is fighting. Here's NPR's David Schaper.
(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHEERING)
DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: A Saturday night in October, a stadium full of screaming fans, and the college football nation watching on ESPN.
ANNOUNCER: Fires, middle; Touchdown, Northwestern. Kain Colter.
SCHAPER: Kain Colter set records as Northwestern's quarterback and served two years as team captain, often leading on the field by example.
ANNOUNCER: Colter in trouble, scoots out of trouble for a moment; still on his feet. Colter - oh my! That'll be the best run of the year...
SCHAPER: No longer scrambling and fighting for yardage on the college gridiron, Colter's new struggle will take place in front of the National Labor Relations Board, in what looks to be a bruising legal battle with the NCAA over the rights of student-athletes.
KAIN COLTER: Student-athletes don't have a voice. They don't have a seat at the table. The current model resembles a dictatorship, with the NCAA - places these rules and regulations on these students without their input, or without the negotiation.
SCHAPER: So backed by the United Steel Workers, Colter and his teammates petitioned the NLRB office in Chicago Tuesday, to recognize a new employee union - the College Athletes Players Association.
At a news conference downtown Chicago, Colter told reporters nearly 100 percent of Northwestern's players voted in favor of the union. He and the others argue they're not just students who play sports, but employees who work more 40 hours a week for the university; training, practicing, and playing games that bring in millions of dollars of revenue to the school.
COLTER: We are not taking these measures out of any mistreatment from Northwestern. However, we recognize that we need to eliminate unjust NCAA rules that create physical, academic and financial hardships for college athletes across the nation.
SCHAPER: From huge television contracts to merchandising, football and men's basketball bring in billions to the NCAA and its member schools. Coaches and athletic directors earn multimillion-dollar salaries, yet Colter says many of the players struggle to afford basic living expenses not covered by their scholarships.
Only 50 percent of players graduate, and he says some will have crippling injuries as well as painful medical bills long after their college playing days are over.
Former UCLA football player Ramogi Huma is a longtime players' advocate who will serve as president of the College Athletes Players Association.
RAMOGI HUMA: If you get hurt in school colors, you know, just because someone labels you an amateur doesn't mean you shouldn't be taken care of for that particular injury when there's a multibillion-dollar industry that's produced off the player's talent.
SCHAPER: The NCAA issued a statement from its chief legal officer, saying quote, "This union-backed attempt to turn student-athletes into employees undermines the purpose of college: an education." The statement goes on to say that "student athletes are not employees. We are confident the National Labor Relations Board will find in our favor, as there is no right to organize student-athletes."
Statements from both Northwestern and the Big Ten conference in which the school plays support that position, but they applaud the players' initiative. And so, too, do many observers of college sports.
LESTER MUNSON: I think it's a bold move. I think it shows great fortitude.
SCHAPER: Lester Munson is a senior writer and legal analyst for ESPN.
MUNSON: Under the current state of American law, they have no chance of winning.
SCHAPER: But Munson says by pushing for a student-athlete union, rather than waiting for the NCAA to reform big-money college athletics itself, the players are taking a significant step forward.
MUNSON: There are going to be big, big changes. The face of college sports five years from now will be radically different from what we see today.
SCHAPER: Munson says those changes could come through legislation in Congress or pending lawsuits against the NCAA, or in a hearing on the union petition before the NLRB in Chicago. No word yet on when that hearing might be.
David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.