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."