In a potentially game-changing moment for college athletics, the Chicago district of the National Labor Relations Board ruled on Wednesday that Northwestern football players qualify as employees of the university and can unionize.
NLRB regional director Peter Sung Ohr cited the players' time commitment to their sport and the fact that their scholarships were tied directly to their performance on the field as reasons for granting them union rights.
Ohr wrote in his ruling that the players "fall squarely within the [National Labor Relations] Act's broad definition of 'employee' when one considers the common law definition of 'employee.'"
Ohr ruled that the players can hold a vote on whether they want to be represented by the College Athletes Players Association, which brought the case to the NLRB along with former Wildcats quarterback Kain Colter and the United Steelworkers union.
"I couldn't be more happy and grateful for today's ruling, though it is the ruling we expected," said Ramogi Huma, president of both the National College Players Association, a nonprofit advocacy group that has been around since 2001, and CAPA, which was formed in January. "I just have so much respect for Kain and the football players who stood up in unity to take this on. They love their university but they think it's important to exercise rights under labor law.
"The NCAA invented the term student-athlete to prevent the exact ruling that was made today. For 60 years, people have bought into the notion that they are students only. The reality is players are employees, and today's ruling confirms that. The players are one giant step closer to justice."
Northwestern issued a statement shortly after the ruling saying it would appeal to the full NLRB in Washington, D.C.
"While we respect the NLRB process and the regional director's opinion, we disagree with it," the statement read. "Northwestern believes strongly that our student-athletes are not employees, but students. Unionization and collective bargaining are not the appropriate methods to address the concerns raised by student-athletes."
In a statement, NCAA chief legal officer Donald Remy said: "While not a party to the proceeding, the NCAA is disappointed that the NLRB Region 13 determined the Northwestern football team may vote to be considered university employees. We strongly disagree with the notion that student-athletes are employees."
Remy added: "Over the last three years, our member colleges and universities have worked to re-evaluate the current rules. While improvements need to be made, we do not need to completely throw away a system that has helped literally millions of students over the past decade alone attend college. We want student athletes -- 99 percent of whom will never make it to the professional leagues -- focused on what matters most -- finding success in the classroom, on the field and in life."
The Big Ten also disagreed with the ruling and released a statement that read: "While we respect the process followed by the National Labor Relations Board, we disagree with the ruling. We don't believe that student-athletes are university employees. The issues raised during the hearings are already being discussed at the national level, and we believe that students should be a part of the conversation."
It was a sentiment shared by all of the big NCAA conferences, including the SEC.
"Notwithstanding today's decision, the SEC does not believe that full time students participating in intercollegiate athletics are employees of the universities they attend," Michael Slive, the SEC commissioner, said in a written statement.
CAPA supporters, meanwhile, celebrated the news. Colter tweeted: "This is a HUGE win for ALL college athletes!"
Later Wednesday, he told ESPN's Tom Farrey: "Obviously this is a huge day not just for Northwestern football players but all college athletes. It's about gaining basic protections and rights.
"I was pleased with how strong the ruling was. The regional director did not budge one bit, he backed us up on all of our points. I believe it's going to be hard to overrule his decision, given how strong it is.
"For me this was just an opportunity to make things right and stick up for future generations and make up for the wrongs of past generations."
Colter added that he was "confident" the Northwestern players would vote to unionize.
Colter, whose playing eligibility has been exhausted, said nearly all of the 85 scholarship players on the Wildcats' roster backed the union bid, though only he expressed his support publicly. The United Steelworkers union has been footing the legal bills.
CAPA attorneys argued that college football is, for all practical purposes, a commercial enterprise that relies on players' labor to generate billions of dollars in revenues. That, they contend, makes the relationship of schools to players one of employers to employees.
In its endeavor to have the players recognized as essential workers, CAPA likened scholarships to employment pay -- too little pay from its point of view. Northwestern balked at that claim, describing scholarship as grants.
Giving college athletes employee status and allowing them to unionize, critics have argued, could hurt college sports in numerous ways -- including by raising the prospects of strikes by disgruntled players or lockouts by athletic departments.
The NCAA has been under increasing scrutiny over its amateurism rules and is fighting a class-action federal lawsuit by former players seeking a cut of the billions of dollars generated from live broadcasts, memorabilia sales and video games. Other lawsuits allege that the NCAA failed to protect players from debilitating head injuries.
NCAA president Mark Emmert has pushed for a $2,000-per-player stipend to help athletes defray some of their expenses. Critics say that isn't nearly enough, considering that players help bring in millions of dollars to their schools and conferences.
CAPA's specific goals include guaranteeing coverage of sports-related medical expenses for current and former players, ensuring better procedures to reduce head injuries and potentially letting players pursue commercial sponsorships.
For now, the push is to unionize athletes at private schools, such as Northwestern, because the federal labor agency does not have jurisdiction over public universities.
During the NLRB's five days of hearings in February, Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald took the stand for union opponents, and his testimony sometimes was at odds with Colter's.
Colter told the hearing that players' performance on the field was more important to Northwestern than their in-class performance, saying, "You fulfill the football requirement and, if you can, you fit in academics." Asked why Northwestern gave him a scholarship of $75,000 a year, he responded: "To play football. To perform an athletic service."
But Fitzgerald said he tells players academics come first, saying, "We want them to be the best they can be ... to be a champion in life."
An attorney representing the university, Alex Barbour, noted Northwestern has one of the highest graduation rates for college football players in the nation, around 97 percent.
"Northwestern is not a football factory," he said.
Information from ESPN reporter Tom Farrey and The Associated Press is included in this report.