Unions in college football? One team makes a move

Quarterback Kain Colter of the Northwestern Wildcats in a game against the Iowa Hawkeyes in 2013.
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In a first for college sports, a group of athletes at a university are asking to form a union, according to a report from ESPN.

Ramogi Huma, president of the National College Players Association (NCPA) filed a petition in Chicago on Tuesday on behalf of football players at Northwestern University, submitting the form at the regional office of the National Labor Relations Board.

Huma said the athletes want an "equal voice when it comes to their physical, academic and financial protections." The immediate goals do not include calling for salaries for players, he added, though he wouldn't rule out the possibility.

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Establishing a college players' union is likely to be an uphill fight, according to experts.

"You have to deal with a lot of issues over labor laws and who is or who is not an employee," said Mark Conrad, a professor of sports law at Fordham University. "I don't think it will work at the college level, as universities can claim they give athletes scholarships," so the players are not employees, he added.

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The move to unionize Northwestern's football players came from the quarterback, Kain Colter, according to published reports. He has worked with the NCPA, which describes itself as a voice for college athletes.

Colter asked for Huma's help in getting athletes better representation in efforts to improve conditions mandated under current rules of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).

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The move marks a change in position for Huma, who talked to CNBC in December about the lawsuit by former college basketball star Ed O'Bannon to receive compensation for the use of images of college athletes.

"We're not against college players having a union, but not for it," Huma said at the time. "The main goal with the O'Bannon suit and other efforts is to bring awareness to what college athletes go through."

Huma and others advocate better player safety on the field, a trust fund for players after their college playing days and guaranteed scholarships if a player can no longer play because of injury.

NLRB is key to unionization

To get a union certified, at least 26 of the 85 scholarship players at Northwestern have to be on board. (Laws require 30 percent of any group seeking unionization to be part of the effort.) Huma has not specified how many players want the union but that the number was "an overwhelming majority."

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But getting the OK will have to come from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which would have to determine whether student athletes or employees or not.

"I think the NLRB would be on the fence with this one," said Peter McHenry, professor of labor economics at the College of William & Mary.

"However, the current NLRB board might be more willing under President Obama's appointees than with a Republican president's appointments," he said. "It can get political."

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The NCAA was quick to respond. It issued a tweet saying, "This union-backed attempt to turn student-athletes into employees undermines the purpose of college: an education." Another tweet said, "Student-athletes are not employees. We are confident the NLRB will find in our favor."

Meanwhile, the NCPA has received support from the United Steelworkers Union as well as the National Football League Players Association.

Whatever the outcome, experts say that with $5.15 billion in annual revenue, college athletics are due for a change.

"Even if they don't get certified as a union, the whole movement with student-athletes is forcing the NCAA to improve conditions for students," said McHenry at William & Mary. "I expect student-athletes to get better deals ahead."

—By CNBC's Mark Koba

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