WASHINGTON - Northwestern University athletes trying to unionize presented their case to lawmakers Wednesday after a federal agency said they have the same rights to bargain collectively as other workers.
"Health and safety of athletes is the concern, especially to reduce the risk of brain trauma," said Ramogi Huma, president of the National Colleges Players Association, an advocacy group.
Added former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, co-founder of the association: "We're up here raising awareness."
Even though the issue is not directly before lawmakers, "Congress is an important part of the chess board," Colter said after meeting with Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio.
Brown said "the right to fair treatment is why all workers, no matter the job or venue, should have the opportunity to unionize."
"College athletes dedicate the same hours to their support as full-time employees and deserve the same protections as any other worker," Brown said in a statement.
Colter, Huma and Tim Waters, national policy director of the United Steelworkers union, were trying to drum up support during their time on Capitol Hill on Wednesday and Thursday.
The Steelworkers are underwriting and financing the effort.
"We're up here to let the leadership know what's going on, basically getting information out," Huma said.
The visits came a week after the Chicago-region director of the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Northwestern's football players on scholarships are employees of the university under the National Labor Relations Act and therefore have the right to vote to unionize.
Northwestern, based in Evanston, Ill., has said it will appeal the ruling. It has until April 9 to do so. The full NLRB has yet to weigh in on the finding.
Stacey Osburn, director of public and media relations for the NCAA, said in a statement that Huma's concern was "unwarranted." A Northwestern official has said that the students were not employees and that unionization and collective bargaining were not the appropriate methods to address their concerns.
"The law is fairly clear and consistent with Northwestern's position, so the NCAA has made no contacts with anyone in Congress attempting to ban the unionization of student-athletes," Osburn said.
Colter, however, called the decision a "strong ruling" and predicted it "will be hard to overturn."
The NLRB does not have jurisdiction over public universities, so the push to unionize athletes has been primarily targeted toward private schools such as Northwestern.
Rep. George Miller of California, the top Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said after a meeting with the Northwestern group that "what they've drawn up here is a list of concerns that they have as athletes in Division I schools where there is clearly an imbalance in the relationship. And they're seeking the right to form a union for the purposes of putting some balance back in that relationship."