Scholarship football players at Northwestern are employees of the university and can unionize, at least as far as the National Labor Relations Board is concerned. Their ruling on the matter today is a potentially momentous decision that could have major ramifications for the future of the NCAA.

Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter (AP/Paul Beaty)

Northwestern football players "fall squarely within the [National Labor Relations] Act's broad definition of 'employee' when one considers the common law definition of 'employee,'" the NLRB ruled on Wednesday [PDF]. Lawyers for the players argued that a scholarship was, essentially, a form of payment, with defined jobs, supervisors, and punishments for breaking rules. The ruling argues that the NCAA failed to provide the burden of proof necessary to deny scholarship football players their status as employees. 

As result of the decision, Northwestern students are now allowed to vote on whether they would like to be represented by the College Athletes Players Association, the plaintiffs in the case.

The impetus for the case came last fall, when Northwestern quarterback Kane Colter announced his intention to unionize his teammates, so that they might collectively bargain with the university. A senior who has played his last game, Colter was the only player to come forward in support of the union, though he says all his teammates backed him. The NCAA has long insisted the student-athletes are students, not employees, and therefore cannot bargain for benefits.

The decision is "revolutionary for college sports," Robert McCormick, a Michigan State professor emeritus focusing on sports and labor law, told The Chicago Tribune. He explained:

McCormick said Ohr's decision could influence other state and federal agencies. For example, if college players demand compensation for injuries sustained during training or a game, Ohr's opinion could come into play in the question of whether the players are employees under the state Workers' Compensation Act.

Currently, players injured on the field can lose their insurance if they lose their football scholarship. One of the key claims that CAPA and Northwestern players is expected to make is to ensure that former players still have support or insurance for on-field injuries. And McCormick wasn't the only proponent of the importance of this ruling. ESPN called it "potentially game-changing" and Huffington Post likened it to a "major hurdle."

It's too early to declare victory for the football players, though. Northwestern has already said it plans to appeal, making this the first of what will surely become a long line of legal cases likely to determine the status of amateur players and their relationship to the schools they play for. The NCAA, too, has weighed in disagreeing with the ruling:

“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. We strongly disagree with the notion that student-athletes are employees.