PITTSBURGH (AP) _ When a former college athlete sought the advice of the United Steelworkers of America on organizing a players advocacy group, the last thing he thought he'd get was the attention of its president.
But former UCLA linebacker Ramogi Huma has gotten that and more. His budding student-athletes group _ Collegiate Athletes Coalition _ has received the full backing of the century-old, 700,000-member steelworkers' union.
Steelworkers president Leo Gerard called it a natural fit Tuesday, saying many college athletes find themselves in a situation akin to working in a ``sweatshop.''
``We're not trying to form a union,'' Gerard said. ``We're trying to form a coalition of student-athletes that will demand a seat at the table.''
The NCAA insists that athletes already have a voice, through sanctioned advocacy groups, but Huma and Gerard say more is needed to protect collegiate athletes.
The coalition is currently made up of several hundred football and basketball players from eight schools, including seven teams in the Pac-10. Organizers would eventually like to represent players in all collegiate sports.
Huma says the group wants to force the NCAA and schools to provide full health care during the off-season and during voluntary practices, and increase life insurance coverage of $10,000 for players. It also wants increased monthly stipends for scholarship athletes.
Under current conditions, says Huma, many scholarship athletes can't pay basic living expenses.
With the union's help, the coalition began a media campaign last summer to raise health issues at voluntary practice sessions following the deaths of Rashidi Wheeler at Northwestern and Eraste Autin in Florida.
``The Steelworkers have been absolutely critical to what we've been doing,'' said Huma, 24. ``They've come to provide their legal and communication teams, and helped cover operating expenses.''
Gerard said he learned about the group's efforts when a friend of Huma's suggested he get in touch with the union. Now, the Steelworkers president is carrying the student-athletes' banner himself, arguing that NCAA regulations force student-athletes to work what amounts to a full-time job for their colleges and universities while they are barely able to pay for food and clothing.
``In the majority of colleges, these student athletes don't get nearly enough support to make it through the academic year,'' Gerard said.
NCAA spokesman Wallace Renfro said there are already initiatives to address many concerns. The NCAA has signed an 11-year contract with CBS worth $6 billion that will provide, in part, an extra $25 million in scholarships to help student-athletes buy clothes, books and other essentials, he said.
The Steelworkers have set up a Jan. 20 meeting with the coalition and the NCAA. Gerard said he hopes it will be a step toward establishing the coalition as a voice for student athletes.