You need not be a sports fan to detect an uneven playing field between the soaring salaries of major college football coaches and the amateur status of their players. But that doesn't mean student-athletes should be unionized.

Still, a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board in Chicago ruled Wednesday that a group of Northwestern University football players were "employees" of the school - and thus have a right to form a union with collective bargaining power.

The school is appealing the decision, which applies only to private universities like Northwestern, not public ones like South Carolina and Clemson - for now.

However, the push to "pay the players" who compete on the major college level has gained considerable yardage over the last few years. Strengthening that drive is the blatant absurdity of continuing "non-profit" status for the NCAA despite its $7.3 billion, 10-year television deal for the new college football playoff system and its basketball tournament TV take of $10.8 billion over 14 years.

Certainly many South Carolinians know the expense of attending a USC or Clemson home football game has climbed steeply along with coaches' salaries over the last decade: USC's Steve Spurrier is now making $4 million a year, Clemson's Dabo Swinney $3.15 million.

Yet petty NCAA rules severely limit "benefits" to scholarship players, who even face restrictions on their ability to take part-time jobs.

Then again, that full scholarship, plus books, room and board, is a major financial benefit in its own right. As Coach Swinney put it Wednesday while responding to the NLRB ruling: "To say these guys get nothing totally devalues an education."

And granting unionized status to players would totally warp the "student-athlete" concept while raising vexing practical questions, including:

What about college athletes in other sports? What about athletes at colleges competing below the big-time, big-money level? If college athletes become "employees," could they be fired, or in the pro-sports lingo, "cut"?

Yes, reforms of the big business of big-time college sports are overdue.

Yes, athletes (and not just football players) deserve fair treatment as valuable assets for their schools - including a fair chance to succeed as students.

But they are, and should remain, "student-athletes" - not "employees."

And unionizing them would throw logic for a costly loss.