By Amanda Becker
(Reuters) - A new labor union is being formed for U.S. college athletes, and football players at Northwestern University in Chicago are looking to get onboard, the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA) announced Tuesday.
An "overwhelming majority" of Northwestern's scholarship football players have notified the U.S. National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) that they are seeking representation with CAPA, the group said in a statement.
The filing of the petitions is a preliminary step that could lead to the student athletes joining what is believed to be the first labor organization of its kind, with backing from the United Steelworkers union (USW).
CAPA's founder and president is Ramogi Huma, a former University of California-Los Angeles football player who previously founded the National College Players Association (NCPA) to advocate for college athletes.
The NCPA backed a first-of-its-kind law in California that required colleges in the state who get more than $10 million annually in sports media revenue to pay for athletes' sports-related medical care, among other student protections.
CAPA's priorities will be to secure similar coverage for current and former college athletes' sports-related medical expenses, minimize the risk of sports-related traumatic brain injury and improve graduation rates, according to the group.
"These athletes generate billions of dollars per year that pay coaches and athletic administrators multimillion-dollar salaries," Huma said in a statement.
"Despite the extraordinary value they bring to their universities, they are too often left to pay sports-related medical expenses during and after their college careers, and can be stripped of their scholarships for any reason including injury," Huma added.
The NLRB is a federal U.S. agency that oversees union representation elections and polices unfair labor practices. If at least 30 percent of workers in a unit file petitions showing interest in union representation, the NLRB will investigate and decide whether the union is appropriate and if any existing labor contracts bar holding an election.
Over the years, the NLRB has vacillated over whether students at private universities have the right to join unions.
In 2000, the board reversed years of precedent and said graduate students at private colleges could seek representation. Then in 2004 the NLRB reverted to its prior stance.
In December, New York University graduate students, as part of a deal with the school, voted for a second time to join an affiliate of the United Auto Workers. Experts say the NLRB will likely take up the issue again in the years to come.
USW President Leo Gerard said: "We are paying CAPA's legal expenses so that CAPA will have the legal help it needs to prove before the National Labor Relations Board that Northwestern football players are covered by the National Labor Relations Act and can assert their rights."
The push by CAPA to represent the Northwestern football players comes amid growing debate about to what extent college athletes should benefit from university sports revenues.
In November, a federal judge said a lawsuit brought by a group of college athletes challenging a National Collegiate Athletic Association rule could move forward. The rule bars student athletes from earning money from their images.
The case seeks to create a system where revenue from broadcasts and videogames goes into a fund that student athletes can access after they are no longer playing.
(Additional reporting by Carlyn Kolker in New York and Dan Levine in San Francisco; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Gunna Dickson)