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Labor board rules Northwestern football players can unionize

Paul Beaty / Associated Press
NFL draft prospect Kain Colter led Northwestern football players in their movement to unionize.

The NFL Players Association might no longer be the only union representing football players following a decision by the National Labor Relations Board on Wednesday that paves the way for college football players to form their own union.

Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter led the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA) in the case. They primarily sought to have Northwestern football players classified as employees instead of student-athletes in order to form the first union of college athletes.

Northwestern quickly issued a statement from Vice President for University Relations, Alan Cubbage, following the ruling.

"Northwestern University is disappointed by today's ruling by the regional director of the National Labor Relations Board finding that Northwestern University's football players who receive grant-in-aid scholarships are employees and directing that a secret ballot election be held to determine whether the football players should be represented by the College Athletes Players Association for purposes of collective bargaining with Northwestern University.

"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."

The decision will be appealed, according to the school's release, but it is nevertheless a stunning ruling that could have far-reaching reverberations within college athletics. Though it was undoubtedly a big win for CAPA, the decision does not mean players on the Wildcats' football team have the right to immediately form a union and collectively bargain with the school.

The groundwork for that has been laid, however.

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Before it winds its way through the appeals process, the decision opens up plenty of questions about where things go from here. First of all, this would permit only scholarship football players at private universities like Northwestern to unionize. It remains to be seen how schools in other states will handle the decision with many just starting to understand the details.

All that's at stake? Billions of dollars in revenue for NCAA schools.

Colter, a 2014 NFL Draft prospect who spent that past four seasons with the Wildcats, has said most of his fellow scholarship players at the school backed the union play. He was the only one to testify in front of the board, though, and his testimony focused primarily on making the case that being a college football player is essentially a full-time job for the athletes.

CAPA attorneys, on behalf of the players, argued that college football relies on players to generate billions of dollars in profits while treating them like employees. The NLRB agreed in part, saying players who receive scholarships fall squarely within the broad definition of an employee. However, the board also found that walk-ons to the football team do not meet the definition of an employee because they do not receive compensation for the athletic services that they perform.

The next hurdle will be Northwestern's appeal, which is expected to happen sometime in early April. It seems unlikely that the ruling will have an immediate impact on college football players -- at Northwestern or elsewhere -- or significantly affect decisions players make on whether to declare for the NFL draft.

In time, however, things could be dramatically different at the NCAA level from where things stand today.

Follow Bryan Fischer on Twitter @BryanDFischer.

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