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Remember this, the colleges and NCAA sell the players' images for profit, and sell replicas of their jerseys, and sell memorabilia and create video games. But if the players sell their own autographs, they can be kicked off the team in disgrace because they violated some purist code that never was pure.

The NLRB ruling injects honesty into this hypocritical system.

So far, the ruling applies only to Northwestern. And, of course, Northwestern will appeal the ruling. Has to. But let's deal with reality as it stands right now.

The NLRB ruling applies to Northwestern because Northwestern is a private institution. The NLRB could not rule on a public institution like, say, Michigan. The NLRB adjudicates issues only on private companies. It's just how the NLRB is set up. Please don't worry your head about that.

The Northwestern ruling certainly implies football players — and perhaps basketball players — at other private universities can unionize, can call themselves university employees, can share in the profits, can be the professionals they really are.

Do you see where this is going?

As things stand today, Stanford could pay its players. Cal could not pay its players. I am not making up this stuff.

Some blue-chip high school linebacker from Fresno gets accepted to Stanford and Cal and goes to his parents in all innocence and says, "Gee, Cal and Stanford are both great schools. I can't decide where to go."

At which point, Mom levels with Junior. "Knucklehead, they'll pay you at Stanford. They won't pay you at Cal. At Stanford, you can go on strike if you don't like the coach. If you are serious about football, attend Stanford."

The NLRB ruling would shake up just about every athletic conference in the nation. Take the Pac-12. Two private schools, that's it: Stanford and USC. They will become absolute powerhouses in football. The rest will fall way behind.

UCLA football? Forget about it.

Washington football? That's so 2014. Show me the money at Stanford.

Northwestern is outraged by the NLRB ruling and issued a statement: "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."

And here I thought Northwestern has a bunch of brains, Northwestern being sort of the Stanford of the Midwest.

Someone should clue in Northwestern it just got manna from heaven.

It can pay football players and Ohio State can't. This could be the best thing that ever happened to Northwestern, which would become the big dog in the Big Ten.

Big advantage, Wildcats. Eat your hearts out, Buckeyes.

This ruling would change the competitive balance in college football all over the country. Little Lafayette College, my alma mater in Easton, Pa., could become a national terror. The Arizona schools could turn into football wimps. The powerful SEC could become an afterthought. Oklahoma? Never heard of it.

And all this is what college football deserves. College basketball deserves it, too, but let's limit this discussion to football.

College football programs long have feasted on the efforts of so-called student athletes and given them crumbs in return.

Grossly-overpaid coaches and school presidents have preached a phony student-athlete ethic, pretending such blatant exploitation is good for the "character" of players. It is never good for anyone's character to be a sucker.

College football is a corrupt system. The schools serve as a de facto minor league for the National Football League, but most college players don't go to the pros. The schools get all the benefits and the players don't.

This NLRB ruling could make the NCAA's phony edifice come tumbling down.

Some highly-professionalized private football programs like Stanford and Notre Dame and Northwestern might retire from Division I status to retain their integrity as elite educational institutions.

They might get off television, downsize and renounce the professional football business. They might embrace the sane model of the Ivy League.

At the very least, private schools would have to rethink the meaning and purpose of football, rethink the role of all university sports.

It's about time.

For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at cohn.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at lowell.cohn@pressdemocrat.com.