"It seems like things are kind of leaning toward no," he said of the overall vote. "I think a lot of them have been successfully talked out of voting yes."
Last month's decision by NLRB's regional director sent shockwaves through college sports, prompting criticism from the NCAA, Northwestern and athletic departments nationwide. While the ruling would apply only to private universities -- they are subject to federal labor law while public schools are under state law -- many saw the decision as a first step toward the end of the traditional "student-athlete" era.
Seventy-six scholarship football players were eligible to cast ballots. The rules under which the ballots were impounded don't even allow them to be counted, so it was not known how many actually voted.
Ramogi Huma, president of the College Athletes Players Association, which would represent the players at the bargaining table if the pro-union side prevails, said just having the vote take place was a victory.
"The NCAA cannot vacate this moment in history and its implications for the future," he said.
Donald Remy, chief legal officer for the NCAA, said the organization remained steadfast that college athletes are not employees.
"Whatever concerns or issues one may have with college athletics, turning student-athletes into employees and changing the relationship between students and their universities is certainly not the answer," he said. "For nearly three years, NCAA member schools have worked on specific proposals designed to enhance the student-athlete experience and support their success in the classroom, on the field and in life."
Jim Phillips, vice president for athletics and recreation at Northwestern, said in a statement the school "strongly believes in these issues that have been raised and has been a leader in several of these areas, including awarding four-year scholarships and providing extended medical benefits.
"Our efforts as a university will continue to focus on providing a world-class experience for our 492 student-athletes, as well as working collaboratively to address the broader issues throughout intercollegiate athletics."
Huma, a former UCLA linebacker, had accused the university of using scare tactics to thwart the effort. Northwestern sent a 21-page question-and-answer document to the players outlining the problems it sees with forming a union. In it, Northwestern said it hoped unionization would not lead to player strikes in the event of a dispute -- but that if it did, replacement players could be brought in to cross picket lines.
Northwestern spokesman Alan Cubbage denied any suggestion that the university engaged in an unfair campaign of intimidation, saying the school was careful to stick to NLRB guidelines while getting across its position.
Cubbage noted that Northwestern already offers its football players four-year scholarships and medical benefits that are extended to cover players for a year after they've left the team and sometimes longer.
"We are truly serious about continuing the conversation," he said. "Regardless of what happened today on the vote, our intention is that -- or our hope certainly is -- that Northwestern is going to be a leader in discussing those issues that have come to the forefront."
Lester Munson of ESPN contributed to this report.