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03/26/2014 03:29 pm ET | Updated Mar 26, 2014

Northwestern Football Players Win First Round In Union Battle

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Football players at Northwestern University have cleared the first major hurdle in their closely watched unionization effort, with an official of the National Labor Relations Board determining that the players are employees and thus eligible to vote in a union election.

Peter S. Ohr, regional director for the agency's Chicago office, issued a ruling Wednesday saying that the players met the necessary criteria to qualify as employees under the National Labor Relations Act. The players' case largely hinged on the argument that an athletic scholarship constitutes a form of payment in exchange for work -- a point of view that Ohr evidently agreed with.

"That the scholarships are a transfer of economic value is evident from the fact that the Employer pays for the players' tuition, fees, room, board, and books for up to five years," Ohr wrote. "While it is true that the players do not receive a paycheck in the traditional sense, they nevertheless receive a substantial economic benefit for playing football."

Ohr wrote that the burden fell on Northwestern to prove that the players were in fact not employees -- a test that he believed the school failed.

The ruling (available here) does not necessarily mean the players will be able to unionize, and Northwestern and the NCAA will have more opportunities to make their case that the players are not employees. Wednesday's decision will almost certainly be appealed to the five-member labor board in Washington. Even that decision could be taken up in the federal court system.

But the ruling nonetheless hands a major victory to the players' would-be union, the College Athletes Players Association, and the United Steelworkers union, which has backed the players' campaign. It sends a clear signal that pro-union players have a more-than-viable argument as their case makes it way through the labor board and perhaps the courts, potentially reshaping the dynamic between college athletes and their schools.

Outgoing Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter has spearheaded the union effort among players, comparing the NCAA to a "dictatorship." After Wednesday's decision was issued, Colter tweeted his approval and said he has "nothing but LOVE" for Northwestern and its coach, Pat Fitzgerald. Colter's testimony was part of the record in the NLRB hearing.

Ohr's 24-page decision -- which referred to Northwestern as an "employer" and the players as "employees" throughout -- detailed all of the strictures that Northwestern's players live and play under. These include requirements to live in dorms for certain periods, to wear particular clothing and to maintain minimal grade point averages while on the team. The players' scholarships, Ohr noted, were contingent on the players' obedience to these rules, as well as the time commitment they necessarily devoted to their team.

The school, in turn, benefited financially from the players' time and talents, according to the decision.

"Clearly, the Employer's players perform valuable services for their Employer," Ohr wrote. "The Employer was able to utilize this economic benefit provided by the services of its football team in any manner it chose. Less quantifiable but also of great benefit to the Employer is the immeasurable positive impact to Northwestern's reputation a winning football team may have on alumni giving and increase in number of applicants for enrollment at the University."

The decision paves the way for an election to be held in which only scholarship players can vote. But Northwestern will likely request the full board in Washington to review Ohr's ruling before that can happen. The school has two weeks to do so.

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