(CBS) In a historic move Wednesday that comes as a surprise to some, the regional office of the National Labor Relations Board has ruled in favor of Northwestern football players and the College Athletes Players Association in their case to be considered employees of the university, creating a path for the nation’s first college athletes’ union to be formed.

CAPA was led by former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter and included Northwestern football players in a quest to assert their labor rights and fight what they view as unjust NCAA rules. Among other rights, they want guaranteed coverage for sports-related medical expenses for current and former players, want to secure due process rights when accused of a violation and to have the right to receive compensation for commercial sponsorships, according to their website.

“We expected to win,” Colter told CBS 2. “We knew we had a strong case and we are happy with all of the testimonies that our witnesses gave.”

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 Northwestern 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 ruling was made in Chicago by director Peter Ohr.

The NLRB’s decision is expected to be appealed to the agency’s headquarters in Washington.

“This is a huge battle that we are fighting and we realize it is no going to be a quick fix,” said Colter. “It is going to take some time and it is going to take a few classes of players to keep continuing this fight and keep pressing on. We’re prepared and we realize how important this is.”

Northwestern released a statement this afternoon expressing its displeasure over the ruling. It reads, in part:

While we respect the NLRB process and the regional director’s opinion, we disagree with it. 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.

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.

The issues regarding the long-term health impacts of playing intercollegiate sports, providing additional grant-in-aid support and providing academic support and opportunities for student-athletes are being discussed currently at the national level, and we agree that students should have a voice in those discussions. However, we believe that a collective bargaining process at Northwestern would not advance the discussion of these topics, in large part because most of the issues being raised by the union are outside the purview of Northwestern.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.