LOS ANGELES - In a decision that could herald a US college sports revolution, a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board ruled Wednesday that Northwestern University's American football players are employees and can unionize.
Peter Sung Ohr, director of the Chicago Regional Office of the NLRB, said the time the players devote to their sport and the fact that their scholarships are linked to their football participation make them employees as defined by the National Labor Relations Act.
Ohr ruled that the players can vote on whether they want to be represented by the College Athletes Players Association, which brought the case before the NLRB.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association, which governs the hugely popular and immensely lucrative world of US university sports, has long held that "student athletes" are not university employees but just students whose participation in sports is part of their education.
As such, they can receive scholarships rewarding their on-field excellence, but not monetary compensation -- something that has provoked bitter dissent as universities rake in millions of dollars in television and merchandising revenue for large-scale sports programs.
Alan Cubbage, vice president for university relations at Northwestern, said in a statement that the university -- based in the Chicago suburb of Evanston, Illinois -- was disappointed in the decision.
"While we respect the NLRB process and the regional director's opinion, we disagree with it," the university said.
"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 confirmed that it plans to appeal to the full National Labor Relations Board in Washington.
"We believe that participation in athletic events is part of the overall educational experience for those students, not a separate activity," NU said.
Northwestern's players were the first in college sports to seek union representation.
The CAPA is a union led by current and former college athletes, including former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter and Ramogi Huma, a former University of California at Los Angeles linebacker who has become an advocate for players' rights.
© 1994-2014 Agence France-Presse