For the first time in the history of college sports, athletes are asking to be represented by a labor union, taking formal steps on Tuesday to begin the process of being recognized as employees, ESPN's "Outside The Lines" has learned.

Ramogi Huma, president of the National College Players Association, filed a petition in Chicago on behalf of football players at Northwestern University, submitting the form at the regional office of the National Labor Relations Board.

Backed by the United Steelworkers union, Huma also filed union cards signed by an undisclosed number of Northwestern players with the NLRB -- the federal statutory body that recognizes groups that seek collective bargaining rights.

"This is about finally giving college athletes a seat at the table," said Huma, a former UCLA linebacker, who created the NCPA as an advocacy group in 2001. "Athletes deserve an equal voice when it comes to their physical, academic and financial protections."

Huma told "Outside The Lines" that the move to unionize players at Northwestern started with quarterback Kain Colter, who reached out to him last spring and asked for help in giving athletes representation in their effort to improve the conditions under which they play NCAA sports. Colter became a leading voice in regular NCPA-organized conference calls among players from around the country.

"The action we're taking isn't because of any mistreatment by Northwestern," Colter said. "We love Northwestern. The school is just playing by the rules of their governing body, the NCAA. We're interested in trying to help all players -- at USC, Stanford, Oklahoma State, everywhere. It's about protecting them and future generations to come.

"Right now the NCAA is like a dictatorship. No one represents us in negotiations. Only way things are going to change is if players have a union."

In a Sept. 21 game against Maine, Colter wore a black wristband with the hashtag "#APU" -- All Players United -- prominently scrawled in white marker as part of a quiet protest gesture. He was joined that day by about 10 teammates as well as players at Georgia and Georgia Tech. In all, players on seven teams in the five largest conferences displayed the #APU symbol, according to the NCPA.