THE REGIONAL director of the National Labor Relations Board says Northwestern University's scholarship fullbacks, tight ends and linebackers are school employees, entitled to vote on whether to unionize. The public face of this effort is former NU quarterback Kain Colter. He's backed by the College Athletes Players Association, which is backed by the United Steelworkers of America.

We'll see where this bold and disruptive unionization effort stands after NLRB officials, whole phalanxes of lawyers and perhaps nine U.S. Supreme Court justices pick its bones. For now, we're having trouble seeing Northwestern's players as doe-eyed victims, exploited by greedy overseers and cast aside to vicious fates.

Freshmen walk into scholarships valued at about $76,000 per year. Their coaches and administrators treat NU athletes with exceptional respect. What's more, those freshman recruits know that they'll likely earn diplomas from a premier private university: 97 percent of Northwestern's players graduate.

That said, there's something troubling about how even a Northwestern, or any of many excellent public universities, takes in so much athletic revenue yet shares relatively little of it with the young people who do the real work. Even more disturbing is the extent to which these schools surrender control over their athletes' labors to sports conferences, TV networks and the NCAA - influential industry groups, all headed by lavishly compensated adults, which gorge on the gazillions of dollars in revenues that . . . the athletes' play generates.

Colleges exert enormous control over athletes' schedules, conduct, classroom performance, diets and more. The NLRB ruling, which Northwestern will appeal, concludes that the players' relationship with the school is primarily economic: They spend more hours on football duties than on academics, and are subject to rules and policies that don't apply to most NU students - and they receive scholarships.

CAPA, the fledgling union, says it wants to negotiate not over wages, but on health and safety issues. If, as alleged, players at some schools have their scholarships unjustly revoked, or wind up paying postcollege medical bills that trace to college-sports injuries, then the complaining athletes are correct: Those wrongs need to be fixed.

But colleges and industry groups apoplectic about having to wrestle with unions have brought this predicament on themselves. They've worried more about protecting revenues than about exerting common sense in protecting the interests of athletes.

What Colter, CAPA and the Steelworkers have wrought looks like a genie that won't be stuffed back in the bottle. The adults whose paychecks come from revenues that college athletes produce will likely find themselves paying more attention to the interests - we hope the lifetime interests - of those athletes.