In a stunning and potentially game-changing decision, the Chicago district of National Labor Relations ruled that Northwestern players qualify as employees of the university and as such, can unionize. The NLRB's Peter Sung Ohr ruled that student-athletes are employees of the school based on the time commitment to the sport and the fact that scholarships are tied to performance on the field.
Still a long way to go between today's ruling and college players getting paid, but the NLRB's ruling sends a strong message that the current model of NCAA amateurism may be on its last legs.
Northwestern released a statement saying that the school was disappointed in the ruling and plans to appeal to the full National Labor Relations Board in Washington, D.C.
"While we respect the NLRB process and the regional director's opinion, we disagree with it. 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.
"Northwestern plans to appeal today's decision to the full National Labor Relations Board in Washington, D.C. The University will continue to explore all of its legal options in regard to this issue."
The NCAA issued a similar statement.
"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," read the NCAA's statement. "We strongly disagree 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.
"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."
Interestingly, the NLRB's ruling only applies to private, not public schools. Any attempts to unionize at one of the nation's public schools would be governed by state-specific laws on unions of public employees. Students from private universities that want to form a union will need to appeal to their state's labor board. Out of 125 Football Bowl Subdivision Schools, just 17, including five from the ACC, are private schools.
Northwestern also made clear that they plan on appealing the decision, though ESPN's Lester Munson writes that the school will have a difficult time in trying to reverse the decision.
It will also be difficult for Northwestern to find legal precedents that will help it in its appeal. The critical precedent is a case involving Brown University and decided in 2004. Northwestern argued that that case's ruling that graduate assistant instructors were students and not employees was the rule that governed the football players' situation. But Ohr, in an impressive bit of scholarship, explains in detail why Northwestern is wrong and why the Brown ruling does not apply to scholarship athletes.
Northwestern will have a difficult time convincing the labor board in Washington that Ohr was wrong. In addition, Northwestern will be up against three members of the board recently appointed by President Barack Obama who are likely to lean in the direction of the union and against the university.
It's likely that any attempts by players to unionize will get tied up in court and take years to resolve. But today's ruling is yet another blow to the NCAA's model of amateurism. College athletics may look very, very different in a few years.