NEW YORK (MainStreet) — College football players are paid university employees. That's the conclusion of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in a ground-breaking ruling issued Wednesday. The NLRB, in response to an inquiry by former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, says student-athletes can form a union and begin collective bargaining. Northwestern has issued a statement saying it intends to appeal the decision.

"Northwestern University is disappointed by today's ruling," said Alan K. Cubbage, vice president for university relations at Northwestern, in a statement. "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. Northwestern plans to appeal today's decision to the full National Labor Relations Board in Washington, D.C. The University will continue to explore all of its legal options in regard to this issue."

He says however, the university is "proud" of its students for raising the issues.

"Northwestern considers its students who participate in NCAA Division I sports, including those who receive athletic scholarships, to be students, first and foremost. We believe that participation in athletic events is part of the overall educational experience for those students, not a separate activity," Cubbage said.

While the NCAA is not yet directly involved in the legal proceedings, the college athletics organization "strongly disagrees" with the NLRB decision.

"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," said Donald Remy, NCAA chief legal officer said in a release.

Colter, the former Northwestern student athlete who initiated the union effort, is co-founder of the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA). The organization is seeking, among other initiatives, guaranteed medical coverage for sports-related injuries for current and former players, the lowering of risk for sports-related traumatic brain injury, increasing athletic scholarships and allowing players to receive compensation for commercial sponsorships.

The NLRB decision, issued by regional director Peter Sung, noted that players on a scholarship typically receive grant-in-aid totaling $61,000 each academic year. Players are also issued additional money from a "Student Assistance Fund" to cover certain expenses such as health insurance, dress clothes required to be worn by the team while traveling to games and for fees for graduate school admittance tests and tutoring.

--Written by Hal M. Bundrick for MainStreet