CHICAGO (AP) — 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.

For the National Collegiate Athletics Association, the timing of the opinion allowing a union at Northwestern couldn't have been worse. In the middle of a tournament that earns schools close to $1 billion a year, it is being taken to task not only for not paying players, but for not ensuring their health and future welfare.

Add in embarrassing revelations like Florida coach Billy Donovan's new $3.7 million-a-year contract and the $18,000 bonus that Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith got for one of the school's wrestlers winning an NCAA title, and it gets harder for some to sympathize with the NCAA's contention that everything it does is for the benefit of athletes who play for the glory of their schools.

"Fifty years ago the NCAA invented the term student-athlete to try and make sure this day never came," said former UCLA linebacker Ramogi Huma, the designated president of Northwestern's would-be football players' union. "Northwestern players who stood up for their rights took a giant step for justice. It's going to set a precedent for college players across the nation to do the same."

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.

Attorneys for the College Athletes Players Association, which would take the lead in organizing the Northwestern players, argued that college football is, for all practical purposes, a commercial enterprise that relies on players' labor. That, they contend, makes the relationship of schools to players one of employers to employees.

Supporters of the union bid also argued that the university ultimately treats football as more important than academics for scholarship players. Ohr sided with the players on that issue.

"The record makes clear that the employer's scholarship players are identified and recruited in the first instance because of their football prowess and not because of their academic achievement in high school," Ohr wrote. He also noted that among the evidence presented by Northwestern, "no examples were provided of scholarship players being permitted to miss entire practices and/or games to attend their studies."

The ruling also described how the life of a football player at Northwestern is far more regimented than that of a typical student, down to requirements about what they can and can't eat and whether they can live off campus or purchase a car. At times, players put 50 or 60 hours a week into football, he added.

Alan Cubbage, Northwestern's vice president for university relations, said in a statement that while the school respects "the NLRB process and the regional director's opinion, we disagree with it."

In a written statement, the NCAA also said it disagreed with the notion that student-athletes are employees.

"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," the NCAA said.

___

Follow Michael Tarm at https://twitter.com/mtarm