A federal agency has begun a hearing on a request by Northwestern University football players who are trying to form a first-of-its-kind college athletes union.
Wednesday's hearing in Chicago is before the National Labor Relations Board, which would have to OK the team's unionization bid.
A central question it must answer is whether college football players are employees. If they are, they'd have unionizing rights. The NCAA and the Big Ten Conference have argued college athletes aren't legally defined as employees.
Northwestern's outgoing senior quarterback, Kain Colter, announced the plans last month. United Steelworkers say they're footing the legal bills for the effort.
The NCAA said the move undermines the purpose of college to get an education.
"Student-athletes are not employees," the NCAA said in a statement, "and their participation in college sports is voluntary. We stand for all student-athletes, not just those the unions want to professionalize."
Jim Phillips, Northwestern's vice president for athletics and recreation, noted the athletes involved with the movement said they aren't unhappy with the university and are focused on national issues.
"Northwestern believes that our student-athletes are not employees and collective bargaining is therefore not the appropriate method to address these concerns," Phillips said. "However, we agree that the health and academic issues being raised by our student-athletes and others are important ones that deserve further consideration."
Players' attorney John Adam says his clients are employees because they work at football 40 hours a week, are managed by coaches and receive payment in the form of scholarships.
Northwestern attorney Alex Barbour disagreed. He said scholarships are payment for education, not football services.
There will be three days of testimony, starting Tuesday. Colter is the main witness for the players.
If it's given the go-ahead, Colter says the College Athletes Players Association would provide athletes a vehicle to lobby for greater financial security and improved safety.