A federal agency's decision Wednesday to allow Northwestern football players to unionize is a vital first step in a movement that could alter the landscape of college athletics. But it's only the first of many.

In football terms, this is the opening drive of a very big game.

The ruling, by a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board, means the Northwestern players qualify as employees under federal law. That runs in contrast to the NCAA's long-held view that football players are student-athletes and their sport, despite generating billions annually for the universities, should be governed by the rules of amateurism.

Richard Epstein, labor law professor at New York University, told CNN that the NLRB ruling has "vast implications for the structure of the sport, if upheld" but would likely take years to resolve.

At this point, the ruling affects Northwestern football players specifically and private school football players generally.

The NLRB has no jurisdiction over public universities such as Cal and San Jose State, which are subject to state labor laws. Basketball players are not involved in the movement to unionize -- at least not yet.

For those reasons, Stanford football is the Bay Area team most likely to get swept up in the movement's initial stages.The athletic department released a statement in reaction to the news.


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"Stanford does not believe student-athletes are employees. We have not yet read the NLRB ruling, but we understand the NLRB decision is likely to be appealed. We hope the decision will be overturned."

Northwestern plans to appeal the ruling to the NLRB's national office.

"We strongly disagree with the notion that student-athletes are employees,'' said Donald Remy, the NCAA's chief legal officer.

"We frequently hear from student-athletes, across all sports, that they participate to enhance their overall college experience and for the love of their sport, not to be paid."

The movement to unionize is unrelated to the high-profile lawsuit brought against the NCAA by former UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon and others seeking compensation for the use of athletes' likeness in the sale of apparel and video games.

Backed by the College Athletes Players Association, which was founded by former UCLA linebacker Ramogi Huma, the Northwestern players are primarily seeking post-career medical benefits, better concussion testing, the formation of an educational fund and scholarships guaranteed for four years.

Salaries and the right to seek commercial endorsements are secondary issues at this point.

"It's a first step toward forever changing the balance of power and guaranteeing players have a seat at the table and the right to bargain for basic protections," Huma told Bloomberg News.

It's also possible, perhaps even likely, that football players in the major conferences will receive compensation long before a national players' union becomes reality.

Several of the most powerful conference commissioners, including the Pac-12's Larry Scott, are in favor of providing stipends to players to bridge the gap between the value of a scholarship and the true cost of attending college (i.e., spending money for meals, entertainment, etc)

Although the details have not been finalized, the Pac-12, Big Ten, SEC, Big 12 and ACC are likely to provide annual stipends of $2,000 - $4,000 for players using cash from television contracts worth hundreds of millions annually.

For more on college sports, see Jon Wilner's College Hotline at blogs.mercurynews.com/collegesports. Contact him at jwilner@mercurynews.com or 408-920-5716.

landmark ruling?
National Labor Relations Board ruling: Northwestern University athletes qualify as employees under federal law. Northwestern plans to appeal.
Why it matters: Northwestern athletes can unionize, setting a precedent for others to do same. Unionizing gives student-athletes leverage in seeking benefits -- possibly salaries and endorsements.