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Pay For Play Next? Labor Board OKs a College Athlete Union

A labor board ruled Wednesday Northwestern University football players can unionize, nudging college athletes closer to the right to earn pay for play.
Image: Quarterback Kain Colter #2 of the Northwestern Wildcats scrambles on a keeper in the second quarter against the Iowa Hawkeyes
Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter led a push to allow he and college teammates to unionize. On Wednesday, a regional office of the National Labor Relations Board ruled in favor of Colter. Getty Images file

College athletes rumbled one historic step closer to earning pay for play Wednesday as a regional office of the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Northwestern University football players meet the federal standards necessary to form a labor union.

The landmark decision could potentially reshape the age-old, amateur environment of college sports, perhaps eventually compelling the NCAA to provide scholarship athletes with medical coverage, a form of free agency or even compensation, according to some sports and labor law experts who followed the case.

“It is an interesting and important ruling that will have a positive momentum impact on the movement to reform college sports,” Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College, said via email.

“Whether it has a direct, concrete impact or not will be decided by (a) whether the ruling is upheld at the national NLRB and (b) what strategy is pursued by the union," Zimbalist wrote. "The ruling ultimately only applies to private universities. The vast majority of (Football Bowl Subdivision) schools are public and are not directly affected.”

The push to unionize, led by former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, has been under federal review since February when Colter testified before a Chicago regional NLRB official, arguing the lengthy hours he and teammates devoted to football and the millions of dollars they earned the school made them Northwestern “employees,” eligible to unionize.

The NLRB agreed with Colter, ruling that players receiving scholarships to perform football-related services for “the Employer under a contract for hire in return for compensation are subject to the Employer’s control and are therefore employees,” according to an excerpt of the ruling.

Colter celebrated the legal score on Twitter:

In a written statement, a Northwestern spokesman said the school will appeal the regional board’s decision to the full NLRB in Washington, D.C.

“While we respect the NLRB process and the regional director's opinion, we disagree with it,” Alan K. Cubbage, the school's vice president for university relations. “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.”

--- Bill Briggs, NBC News Contributor