INDIANAPOLIS — Ramogi Huma and Kain Colter are fighting back.
The two former Division I football players walked into the NCAA's own backyard to criticize the governing body at Indiana's AFL-CIO state convention Monday, just seven weeks after the National Labor Relations Board effectively killed an effort to unionize Northwestern's football team.
Just a short walk away from NCAA headquarters, Colter, the co-founder of the College Athletes Players Association, and Huma, the CAPA president, argued that while recent reforms such as multi-year scholarships and stipends to cover normal college expenses are a good start, much more still needs to be done.
"The progress that's been made since that's been made since the Northwestern players signed their (union) cards has been night and day," Huma told The Associated Press before the speech. "But many more reforms need to come, and also the reforms need to be legally binding. We've seen NCAA sports roll back protections over the years, so we need something that's legally binding. A policy can be wiped out with the stroke of a pen."
The solution, Colter and Huma contend, is a collective bargaining agreement — something the NCAA has adamantly opposed.
Both sides have powerful allies and arguments.
In July 2014, NCAA President Mark Emmert told The Wall Street Journal that school leaders had discussed the possibility of seeking an antitrust exemption from the federal government and might pursue that course if the courts struck down the amateurism model.
Colter, the former quarterback and receiver at Northwestern, continues to plead his case on campuses around the country, arguing that schools, conferences and the NCAA must take stronger stances on concussion protocol and long-term health care.
Huma's organization, which has been backed by the Steelworkers since 2000, is trying to enlist support from additional unions after the NLRB issued a unanimous decision saying the possibility of union and nonunion teams competing against one another could create competitive imbalances on the field.
Huma doesn't buy it.
"Another reason we're having a discussion today is to send a message to the justices in the federal court system and to lawmakers because basically the NCAA is basically asking them to uphold a Jim Crow system," Huma said before explaining the motivation in this case is more financial than racial. "We've proven that we have all the correct answers legally, but yet in these cases there are aspects where players are still being denied justice nonetheless. So the NCAA is asking the NLRB, the federal government, the courts to deny players equal protection under the law — the same protections that every other American is afforded.
"But we can't afford, America can't afford, for the people who are entrusted to make sure that there are equal rights under the law to be complicit in what the NCAA is trying to accomplish, targeting a group of Americans and stripping them of their rights," Huma added.
The NCAA declined comment on that accusation.
But spokesman Bob Williams did issue a statement regarding the overall theme of the two speeches.
"Although unions may be appropriate for professional sports, college athletes are not professionals nor employees, so there is no need for unions," he said.
While Huma wages the hardball political and legal battles, Colter is content to try to change the hearts and minds of college athletes, even those who might not agree with the concept of unionization.
During his speech, Colter explained how his interest in forming a union grew from a class he took on the modern worker. After doing a little more research, Colter said he believed college athletes were being subjected to too many risks.
And while Colter acknowledges the NCAA has taken "baby steps" toward progress, there are still many others to be addressed.
"The 5 a.m. workouts and conditioning sessions aren't televised. The late-night film sessions are not seen by anyone outside the team," Colter said. "The difficulty of balancing a full-time job with a full-course schedule is not glamorized. The wear and tear that the player's body endures throughout the year is seen as a badge of honor. The concussions, surgeries and broken bones become just a part of the game."
A game that Colter believes can be much safer and every bit as popular as it is today.
"Players, they need a voice, they need a seat at the table," Colter said. "The biggest thing we want to see changed is we want them to have a say in the policies and the rules that kind of govern their collegiate athlete experience. At that point, they'll finally have a voice and they'll vote and they'll be able to make decisions for themselves."