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He observed that their athletic scholarships were tied directly to their performance on the field.

Northwestern players who stood up for their rights took a giant step for justice,” said former UCLA linebacker Ramogi Huma, the founder and president of the National College Players Association. “It’s going to set a precedent for college players across the nation to do the same.”

However, Northwestern officials and other critics of the ruling said considering student athletes to be employees of a school just because they have scholarships is far-fetched.

“Even though college sports, mainly just at the football and men’s basketball division level, have become very commercialized, I don’t think that justifies professionalizing college sports,” said Matt Mitten, a law school professor and director of the National Sports Law Institute at Marquette University.

“It would be interesting to see how the Northwestern football players would vote. Would a majority of them want the union or not? Because by saying yes, that would make the economic value of their scholarships equivalent to wages. And they would have to pay federal income tax on that, which would be very substantial,” Mitten said. “That’s one of the possible downsides. Right now, athletic scholarships are not taxed.”

William Gould, an emeritus Stanford law professor and former chairman of the NLRB, said the public typically isn’t sympathetic toward athletes. He said historically that goes back to the days when professional athletes were organizing. “The public feels that athletes are having a nice time. They’d like to be able to play these games and get compensation for them,” Gould said.

Gould said he doesn’t think the public is sympathetic toward today’s college athletes even when they hear of problems such as concussions.

“Look, after all, it’s the public’s insatiable lust for cataclysmic violence which is bound up with football and hockey that has created this,” Gould said. “The owners and the universities, they’ll find something that will bring people into the seats or turn the television sets on, so the public is not really focused on this.”


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Associated Press writer Kimberly Hefling contributed to this report.