CHICAGO -- The National Labor Relations Board opened a closely watched hearing Tuesday on a bid by Northwestern football players to form what would be the first union for college athletes in U.S. history.
From a witnesses stand in a federal court building, Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter testified that players adhere to sometimes grueling schedules, putting in 40- to 50-hour weeks on football during and before the season. During August training, he said, players wake at 8 a.m. and often only finish practice at 10 p.m.
"It's a job, there is no way around it -- it's a job," said the 21-year-old Colter, who is a senior and whose college career is over. He is expected to be in Indianapolis later this week for the NFL combine, a series of predraft workouts for prospects.
The key question for the NLRB is whether college football players qualify as employees; if they do, under U.S. law they would have the right to unionize. The Colter-led bid, which is supported by the United Steelworkers, is seen as a test case that could transform the landscape of college athletics. The NCAA and Big Ten Conference, which includes Northwestern, both maintain that college students are not employees whatever their participation in athletics.
Colter's attorney, John Adam, told the NLRB panel that players are employees and scholarships amount to pay.
"Being a football player at Northwestern is hard work. And make no mistake -- it is work," Adam said. And, he added, the Wildcats' players earn "their compensation with blood, sweat and tears."
An attorney representing the university, Alex Barbour, challenged the notion the players are employees. He said academics are at the core of a football player's experience at the school.
"Academics always trumps athletics at Northwestern," he said. "Northwestern is not a football factory."
Another lawyer for Northwestern said the school still views players as not employees "but if the (NLRB) board were to find that they are employees, they are temporary employees."
Joseph Tilson said they would be classified as temporary -- a legal distinction the school says prevents them from unionizing -- because "they are only here for a finite period of time."
Colter said most of the team's 85 scholarship players support forming a union -- though he has been the only one to step forward publicly with the support of the Steelworkers, the newly formed College Athletes Players Association and its leader, former UCLA linebacker Ramogi Huma.
"It's my understanding that (average) NFL players have shorter careers than college players, and they have a very strong union," Huma said, regarding Tilson's notion of a temporary status.
Supporters say a union would provide athletes a vehicle to lobby for financial security and improved safety, noting that players are left out of the billions generated through college athletics. They contend scholarships sometimes don't even cover living expenses for a full year.
Since the 1960s, the NCAA and its member schools have consistently resisted any notion players could be seen as employees. That a Northwestern lawyer would broach that idea, even as a hypothetical, struck a senior official of the Steelworkers as a victory for the players.
"They are beginning to hedge their bets a bit," Tim Waters said.
A decision by the NLRB could come soon after the testimony concludes. For now, the push is to unionize athletes at private schools, like Northwestern. Public universities, which are subject to different regulations, could follow later.
Information from The Associated Press and ESPN.com's Tom Farrey was used in this report.