Chicago, IL (SportsNetwork.com) - The National Labor Relations Board has ruled that Northwestern football players are employees of the university and should therefore be entitled to be represented in collective bargaining.
The ruling Wednesday by regional NLRB director Peter Sung Ohr opens the door for the players to unionize in what could be a landscape-changing decision in college athletics.
Northwestern said it was "disappointed" by the ruling and plans to appeal.
"Northwestern believes strongly that our student-athletes are not employees, but students," the school said. "Unionization and collective bargaining are not the appropriate methods to address the concerns raised by student- athletes."
The NCAA also expressed its disappointment in the ruling.
"We strongly disagree with the notion that student-athletes are employees," the NCAA's chief legal officer Donald Remy said in a statement.
"We frequently hear from student-athletes, across all sports, that they participate to enhance their overall college experience and for the love of their sport, not to be paid.
"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."
Former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, who helped bring the petition to the labor board with the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA) and United Steelworkers, called the decision "a huge win for all college athletes."
Ohr wrote that Northwestern football players on scholarship should vote on whether or not they want to be represented in collective bargaining by CAPA.
He said players receiving grant-in-aid scholarships fall under the common-law definition of employees.
The case has taken its place in the discussion over whether or not athletes should be paid for their part in the increasingly lucrative business of college athletics.