Northwestern football players qualify under federal law as employees of the university and, therefore, can legally form the nation's first college athletes' union, the National Labor Relations Board announced Wednesday.
"We had both the facts and the law on our side," Gary Kohlman, the attorney representing the players, said in a telephone interview with Bloomberg News.
It's a stunning ruling, but hardly the final one on the matter. Northwestern has already announced plans to appeal the ruling by National Labor Relations Board regional director Peter Ohr to the full NLRB in Washington, D.C. After that, it probably will go through appellate courts and even the Supreme Court if necessary.
Outgoing Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter was the driving force behind forming the College Athletes Players Assn., which would take the lead of organizing the players if a union is formed. The legal bills have been paid by the United Steelworkers union.
CAPA attorneys have argued college football generates enormous amounts of profit on players' labor, which makes the players employees of the schools. CAPA said scholarships are the equivalent of payment, but not nearly enough.
Northwestern attorneys countered student-athletes shouldn't be categorized with unionized workers such as truck drivers or factory employees. It said scholarships aren't payments, they are grants.
The NCAA is facing increasing pressure, including multiple lawsuits, challenging its classification of athletes as amateurs. The focus of this particular case is for athletes to unionize at private schools because the federal labor agency does not have jurisdiction over public universities.