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College athletes win first battle in labor union movement

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Players still have a long way to go, but one of the biggest obstacles between them and the next version of college athletics is out of the way.

Former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, the leader of the push.
Former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, the leader of the push.
Jonathan Daniel

A group of college football players led by former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter has won its case against Northwestern University in the National Labor Relations Board, putting it on the path toward official unionization (the full ruling in PDF form, via ESPN). Pending another several rounds of appeals that could drag on for years and wind up at the Supreme Court, of course, because that's how law things work.

But this is still huge news. As of now, the government body in charge of labor considers a group of college football players labor, determining "players receiving scholarships from the Employer are 'employees.'"

This news comes as a slight surprise, since the presiding officer recently described the players' case as "weak."

What will they do with their new powers, if they're eventually able to seize them? The initial goals set by Colter and company are modest and agreeable, including several calls for greater safety and academic reforms. This isn't the pay-for-play scramble we've been warned about, though it does threaten everything the NCAA stands for.

The opening rounds of the union push have included awkward moments in which Colter and Northwestern teammates and admins have been at odds over fundamental matters of college sports, including how much time athletes have to devote to practice and which majors players end up studying. The ruling delivered by the NLRB contains details that all but shatter the myth of athletes having plenty of time to devote to academics, with repeated findings that players spend up to 50 hours per week on football.

Wednesday's decision, if ultimately upheld, would only apply to private schools like Northwestern, since public universities are subject to state labor laws. Its outcome would influence public university cases, but wouldn't be binding. The ruling also doesn't include walk-on players, which it finds are afforded greater freedom and have no binding contract.

Northwestern responded with a statement, as did the NCAA:

Colter commented as well -- note the lack of a call for pay-for-play:

And now, we wait on appeals and await more yelling. The takeaway: a group of athletes who swung at the system just connected, and the game appears quite likely to change.

We'll have more on this story later on. Right now, what do you think?