In a stunning ruling that could revolutionize college sports, a federal agency said Wednesday that football players at Northwestern University can create the nation’s first union of college athletes.


The decision by a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board answered the question at the heart of the debate over the unionization bid: Do football players who receive full scholarships to Northwestern qualify as employees under federal law and therefore can legally unionize?

Peter Sung Ohr, the NLRB regional director, said in a 24-page decision that the players “fall squarely” within the broad definition of employee.

Supporters of the union bid had argued that the university ultimately treats football as more important than academics for scholarship players. Ohr agreed.

“The record makes clear that the employer’s scholarship players are identified and recruited in the first instance because of their football prowess and not because of their academic achievement in high school,” Ohr wrote.

He also noted that among the evidence presented by Northwestern, “no examples were provided of scholarship players being permitted to miss entire practices and/or games to attend their studies.”

Jacksonville civil rights attorney and former Olympic swimmer Nancy Hogshead-Makar said the ruling opens the doors for a more equitable college system between schools and athletes.

“You have a coach making $5 million and athletes not being able to get an extra pair of sneakers,” said Hogshead-Makar, who taught sports law classes at Florida Coastal School of Law. “The current model is broken. ... For most states, the highest paid state employee is the football coach. Anybody starting from scratch would not use this system.”

Don Capener, dean of the Jacksonville University business school, said the impact of the ruling is potentially huge.

“It’s mind-boggling to think of the financial liability being put on these colleges if they have to start compensating student athletes,” Capener said. “It raises a question that both college administrators and athletic workers worry about. What is the balance between the revenue produced, the work put into it and the players themselves?”

UNF athletic director Lee Moon said fallout from the ruling “could change the dynamics of college athletics, I just don’t know. I haven’t read enough to see what the ramifications will actually be.”

Alan Cubbage, Northwestern’s vice president for university relations, said that while the school respects “the NLRB process and the regional director’s opinion, we disagree with it,” and announced plans to appeal to labor authorities in Washington, D.C.

Evanston, lll-based Northwestern argued that college athletes, as students, do not fit in the same category as factory workers, truck drivers and other unionized workers.

The next step would be for scholarship players to vote on whether to formally authorize the College Athletes Players Association, or CAPA, to represent them, according to the NLRB decision.

The specific goals of CAPA include guaranteeing coverage of sports-related medical expenses for current and former players, reducing head injuries and potentially letting players pursue commercial sponsorships.

But critics have argued that giving college athletes employee status and allowing them to unionize could hurt college sports in several ways, including raising the prospect of strikes by disgruntled players or lockouts by athletic departments.

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.

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 earned from live broadcasts, memorabilia sales and video games. Other lawsuits allege 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 expenses. Critics say that is not nearly enough, considering players help bring in millions of dollars to their schools and conferences.

In a written statement, the NCAA said it disagreed with the notion that student-athletes are employees.

“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,” the NCAA said.

The developments are coming to a head at a time when major college programs are awash in cash generated by new television deals that include separate networks for the big conferences. The NCAA Tournament generates an average of $771 million a year in television rights itself, much of which is distributed back to member schools by the NCAA.

Attorneys for CAPA argued that college football is, for all practical purposes, a commercial enterprise that relies on players’ labor to generate billions of dollars in profits. The NLRB ruling noted that from 2003 to 2013 the Northwestern program generated $235 million in revenue — profits the university says went to subsidize other sports.

Outgoing Wildcats quarterback Kain Colter, who took a leading role in establishing CAPA. said players’ performance on the field was more important to Northwestern than their in-class performance, adding, “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.”

Hogshead-Makar said she anticipates the ruling will lead to congressional action. She described the rift in college athletics as a battle between haves and have-nots.

“It’s between the employees and the athletes,” she said. “Coaches, people who work for the bowls and the conferences, those are the haves. The have-nots are the athletes.

“We allowed this mousetrap to be built, and we can build a different one. The answer isn’t to give athletes more money, it’s to move the system to back where athletics is part of someone’s education.”

The Associated Press and the Times-Union’s Gene Frenette and Chet Fussman contributed to this report.