The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), in a regional decision springing from efforts of student athletes at Northwestern University, has ruled that amateur college players have the right to unionize.

Peter Sung Ohr, regional NLRB director in Chicago, wrote: "I find that players receiving scholarships from the Employer [Northwestern University] are 'employees' under Section 2(3) of the Act. Accordingly, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that an election be conducted under the direction of the Regional Director for Region 13…." 

Thus the Northwestern players who petitioned the NLRB regional office are free to organize and bargain over wages and other issues covered by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).

"While we respect the NLRB process and the regional director's opinion, we disagree with it," responded Northwestern Vice President Richard Cubbage. "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."

The 123 schools in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision turned a $1.3 billion profit on $3.2 billion in revenue in the fiscal year ending June 2013, according to the data submitted to the Department of Education.

The NLRB governs the rights of private-sector employees, meaning that the ruling affects only athletes who compete at private schools. Public-school players seeking to unionize would have to gain approval from state-run labor boards.