CHICAGO — A regional director of the National Labor Relations Board ruled Wednesday that a group of Northwestern football players were employees of the university and have the right to form a union and bargain collectively.
For decades, the NCAA and college sports have functioned on the bedrock principle of the student-athlete, with players rewarded with scholarships to compete for their university. But Peter Ohr, the regional NLRB director, tore down that familiar construct in a 24-page decision. He ruled that all Northwestern's scholarship football players should be eligible to form a union based on a litany of factors, including how much time they devote to football — as many as 50 hours during some weeks —the control exerted by the coaching staff and their scholarships, which Ohr deemed a contract for compensation. "It cannot be said that the employer's scholarship players are 'primarily students,' " the decision said.
The ruling comes at a time when the NCAA is faced with growing criticism that it and its member universities are profiting to the tune of billions of dollars each year from college football and basketball players under the guise of amateurism.
The ruling applies only to scholarship football players at Northwestern, a private university. But the precedent could extend to all Division I scholarship football players at private universities. (Collective bargaining at public universities is governed by state law.)
"It's another brick being taken out of the castle the NCAA has constructed," said ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, a former college basketball player. "It's not going to stand forever, and we're getting closer and closer to it tumbling."
The newly formed College Athletes Players Association, which submitted the petition to the NLRB on behalf of the players, hailed the ruling as "a major step toward justice."
A Northwestern spokesman, Alan Cubbage, said in a statement that the university would appeal the decision to the five-member NLRB in Washington, a process that could take months.
The NCAA was not a party to the labor proceeding, but it is facing several lawsuits related to player compensation and health issues.
"We strongly disagree with the notion that student-athletes are employees," wrote Donald Remy, the NCAA's chief legal officer.
Ramogi Huma, the College Athletes Players Association president and a former UCLA football player, submitted the petition in January, and an often testy hearing followed that spanned three weeks last month. Lawyers for the players association and Northwestern argued the question of whether the players were students, employees or some kind of hybrid.
Kain Colter, a former Northwestern quarterback and the face of the movement, testified that he was steered away from difficult science classes and was denied his dream of pursuing a career as a doctor. Northwestern administrators defended what is considered a sterling academic record: 97 percent of its football players graduate, the highest rate among universities in the top division of collegiate athletics.
Ohr's ruling, though, centered not on the treatment of players, but the university's relationship to the them.
Ohr cited several examples to support his conclusion that Northwestern football players were on campus to play football, and very different from other students. He noted Northwestern football reported $235 million in revenue from 2003 to 2012, and how players are recruited for their athletic ability, not their academics. Team guidelines include drug testing and a provision that players cannot refuse a friend request from a coach on Facebook. If players do not follow the rules, their scholarships can be revoked.
In 2004, the NLRB ruled graduate assistants at Brown University were primarily students and denied them a petition to unionize. Ohr said that precedent did not apply to football players because, among other reasons, their role as athletes was wholly separate from their academic role.
The decision also compared the time spent on football activities compared to the time spent on academic responsibilities.
The decision includes a directive for a secret ballot election, which Waters said would proceed soon despite Northwestern's appeal. If a majority of the players vote to unionize, bargaining with the university could begin. Colter has said the vast majority of the team signed the original petition.
A more likely outcome is that Northwestern players hold a vote and the results are impounded while the national board in Washington reviews the case. If its decision is upheld, Northwestern would have the option to refuse to bargain with the certified union, which would send the case to federal appeals court.