On Jan. 28, a newly formed College Athletes Players Association (CAPA) filed a petition with the regional office of the National Labor Relations Board to allow them to unionize and obtain collective bargaining rights. The petition was filed on behalf of football players at Northwestern University; an undisclosed number of NU players signed union cards. This is reportedly the first attempt to unionize in college sports.

The move quickly gained national attention, in some papers more coverage that President Obama’s State of the Union address given on the same day.

“The action we’re taking isn’t because of any mistreatment by Northwestern,” said Kain Colter, a former NU quarterback and cofounder of CAPA. “We love Northwestern. The school is just playing by the rules of their governing body, the NCAA. We’re interested in trying to help all players – at USC, Stanford, Oklahoma State, everywhere. It’s about protecting them and future generations to come.”

Former UCLA linebacker Ramogi Huma, a cofounder and president of CAPA, said, “This is about finally giving college athletes a seat at the table. Athletes deserve an equal voice when it comes to their physical, academic and financial protections.”

Some of the group’s initial demands include financial coverage for medical expenses incurred as a result of  sports-related injuries, requiring that independent experts on concussions be on the sidelines during games, and establishing a trust to help former players graduate.

CAPA’s initial goals do not include a demand that schools to pay salaries to athletes, but Mr. Huma reportedly did not rule out that in the future. Revenues generated by college athletics exceed $5 billion annually.

The NCAA staked out its legal position that student athletes are not employees within the meaning of the National Labor Relations Act and are not entitled to unionize.

 In a prepared statement, Jim Phillips, NU’s vice-president of athletics and recreation said, “Northwestern University always has been, and continues to be, committed to the health, safety and academic success of all of its students, including its student-athletes. The concerns regarding the long-term health impacts of playing intercollegiate sports, providing academic support and opportunities for student-athletes are being discussed currently at the national level, and we agree that they should have a prominent voice in those discussions.”

While stating that NU did not believe student-athletes could unionize, Mr. Phillips added, “We are pleased to note that the Northwestern students involved in this effort emphasized that they are not unhappy with the University, the football program or their treatment here, but are raising the concerns because of the importance of these issues nationally. … We agree that the health and academic issues being raised by our student-athletes and others are important ones that deserve further consideration.”