NEW YORK (CNNMoney) — Football players at Northwestern University are seeking to join a labor union, according to the National College Players Association, which wants to be the first union to represent college athletes.
Ramogi Huma, president of the National College Players Association (NCPA), told CNN Tuesday that he has filed a petition with the regional office of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).
With the backing of the United Steelworkers union, Huma says he has gotten signatures of support from an undisclosed number of Northwestern football players.
Huma, a former college athlete himself, Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter and Steelworkers President Leo Gerard met with reporters in Chicago Tuesday to discuss the organizing effort. They said it's important that players be given a voice on safety issues, such as protections in the case of players who suffer from concussions, as well as medical costs that arise after their college careers have ended and their schools are no longer covering their health care costs.
"We want to give players a voice," said Colter. "Right now it's a dictatorship."
The organizing effort was first reported by ESPN's "Outside the Lines."
Representatives of Northwestern University did not immediately return calls seeking comments, but the NCAA said it opposed the effort.
"This union-backed attempt to turn student-athletes into employees undermines the purpose of college: an education," said Donald Remy, the NCAA's chief legal officer, in a statement. "Student-athletes are not employees, and their participation in college sports is voluntary. We stand for all student-athletes, not just those the unions want to professionalize."
Figures filed by Northwestern University show that the Big Ten Conference football program had revenue of $30.1 million in 2012-13. It had expenses of $21.7 million, leaving it a profit of $8.4 million.
But that is only a fraction of the money generated by college athletics. Federal reports filed by the 244 major college football programs show combined revenue of $3.6 billion in the 2012-13 school year, and a combined profit of $1.3 billion. Men's basketball at those schools produced another $1.1 billion in revenue, and a profit of $334.9 million.
The NCPA points to a study it did in conjunction with the Drexel University Sports Management department that found the average annual scholarship shortfall that athletes have to pay themselves to attend school is $3,285.
It is proposing that major colleges agree to give $52 million a year to football and men's basketball players -- an additional $3,000 each that it says would cover most of out-of-pocket costs. It is also proposing an additional $52 million to support women's sports at the same schools. It said the money could be covered by increased revenues already set to be collected by the schools through the NCAA in coming years.
The NCPA has pursued a number of measures in Congress and state legislatures seeking protections for college athletes. It has also organized protests among athletes at a variety of schools. It had a plane dragging a banner above the national championship game on Jan. 6, reading "All players united for concussion reform. Wake up NCAA!." It also has had players wearing the letters APU and wristbands reading All Players United during football games last fall.
The NLRB, which oversees representation elections in most of the nation's private sector workplaces, will proceed with an investigation of the organizing effort, said Peter Ohr, director of the NLRB's regional office in Chicago.
Ohr said one of the main issues that will be examined is whether the athletes are eligible under labor law to join a union. It expects to set a hearing on the matter within 7 to 10 days, and issue a decision in six to eight weeks.
If the Chicago office finds an organizing election is called for, it could schedule a vote within a month of the decision. But if there is a decision in favor of holding a vote, the university could appeal to the national office of the NLRB, which would delay a possible vote.
--CNN's Sara Ganim and Dave Cera contributed to this report.
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