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In stunning ruling, US court says college athletes can form unions

CHICAGO--A federal agency has decided that football players at Northwestern University can create the first union of college athletes in the United States — a stunning ruling that could revolutionize a college sports industry worth billions of dollars and have dramatic repercussions at schools across the country.

The case has stirred a national debate over the nature of lucrative college sports — especially football, which is followed nearly as avidly as the professional National Football League. The question is whether student football players who help generate millions of dollars in revenue for their universities should be treated as employees.

On Wednesday, a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board decided the answer is yes. Peter Sung Ohr's ruling means he agrees that football players Northwestern — a member of the Big Ten conference of 12 universities with prestigious sports programs — qualify as employees under federal law and therefore can legally unionize.

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 sports scholarships are compensation and coaches are their managers.

The decision comes at a time when the National Collegiate Athletics Association, which organizes the athletics programs of many universities in the U.S., has been under increasing scrutiny over its amateurism rules and is fighting a class-action federal lawsuit by former players seeking a cut of the billions of dollars earned from live broadcasts, memorabilia sales and video games. Other lawsuits allege the NCAA failed to protect players from debilitating head injuries.

Northwestern, which is in Illinois, argued that 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.

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In this Jan. 28 photo, Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, right, speaks while College Athletes Players Association President Ramogi Huma listens during a news conference in Chicago.

(AP)

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