In a ruling that could revolutionize college sports, a federal agency has given football players at Northwestern University the green light to unionize.

Wednesday's landmark ruling by a regional director of National Labor Relations Board means the players are deemed employees under federal law and so can create the nation's first college athletes' union.

Union lawyers argued the Big Ten school's football players are part of a commercial enterprise that generates hefty profits through their labor.

The NCAA, Big Ten Conference and the private school vehemently opposed the union drive.

Northwestern argued that college athletes are students and can't be put in the same category as factory workers.

The NLRB says scholarship players aren't primarily students because of the amount of time dedicated to football.  It added that the school failed to justify denying scholarship football players employee status.

Northwestern issued a statement saying student-athletes are not employees and unionization and collective bargaining aren't appropriate ways to address their concerns.  The university plans to appeal the decision. 

The ruling in Chicago by director Peter Ohr can be appealed to the agency's headquarters in Washington, D.C.

The players originally petitioned for union status back in January, seeking scholarships that cover the full cost of attending school, guaranteed scholarships for players who are injured or otherwise can't play and incentives to help players finish their degrees. 

For now, the push to organize unions is limited to private schools like Northwestern, because the federal labor agency does not have jurisdiction over public universities.

KFBK's Zack Stein spoke with Michael Smith, who covers college sports for the Sports Business Journal. Here's his reaction to the ruling:

-- The Associated Press contributed to this report.