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March 26, 2014

College athletes can unionize, federal agency says

CHICAGO — In a stunning ruling that could revolutionize college sports, a federal agency said Wednesday that football players at Northwestern University can create the nation's first union of college athletes.

The decision by a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board means it agrees football players at the Big Ten school qualify as employees under federal law and therefore can legally unionize.

"Based on the entire record in this case, I find that the Employer's football players who receive scholarships fall squarely within (federal labor law's) broad definition of 'employee," Peter Sung Ohr, the NLRB regional director, said in his 24-page decision.

An employee is generally regarded by law as someone who receives compensation for a service and is under the direct control of managers. Players argued that their scholarships are compensation and coaches are their managers.

The Evanston, Ill-based university argued college athletes, as students, don't fit in the same category as factory workers, truck drivers and other unionized workers. Immediately after the ruling, the school announced it plans to appeal to labor authorities in Washington, D.C.

Alan Cubbage, Northwestern's vice president for university relations, said in a statement that while the school respects "the NLRB process and the regional director's opinion, we disagree with it."

The specific goals of the College Athletes Players Association, or CAPA, which would take the lead in organizing the players, include guaranteeing coverage of sports-related medical expenses for current and former players, ensuring better procedures to reduce head injuries and potentially letting players pursue commercial sponsorships.

But critics have argued that giving college athletes employee status and allowing them to unionize could hurt college sports in numerous ways, including by raising the prospects of strikes by disgruntled players or lockouts by athletic departments.

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