The groundbreaking March 26 decision on college football was less about allowing Northwestern University’s players to form a union than about exposing the hypocrisy of big-time college sports.

For decades, the NCAA has worked to erect an elaborate fortress around the archetypical “student-athlete,” extolling the blended virtue of study and sport while celebrating the spirit that teams bring to campus life and the benefit of exposing underprivileged athletes to the college experience. But big money, cheating scandals and bad behavior by many players has chipped away at the image.

As ESPN’s Jay Bilas said, the ruling was like “another brick being taken out of the castle the NCAA has constructed; it’s not going to stand forever, and we’re getting closer and closer to it tumbling.”

The gist of the ruling from the National Labor Relations Board’s regional director in Chicago was that Northwestern’s scholarship football players aren’t so much students as employees hired on the cheap to entertain fans and make money for the school. Players are recruited with little regard for their academic ability, according to the 24-page decision. They work long hours outside the classroom, both before and after the season. They are tightly supervised and often segregated from the student body. And they are steered toward easy classes aimed at keeping them eligible rather than enhancing their intellect. Indeed, that sounds more like a job than an education.

If student-athletes are not real students at Northwestern, a rigorous private school that graduates 97 percent of its football players, what must it be like at the nation’s football factories like Oklahoma and Florida State, where graduation rates hover near 50 percent?

And what does graduation really mean, anyway, even at highly regarded schools? At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, for example, the temptation of money and football glory was so appealing that the administration turned a blind eye toward an African-American studies program that offered top grades to football players for classes that never met. The department head faces criminal charges.

In a stroke of well-timed irony, almost as the Northwestern decision was announced, talented quarterback Johnny Manziel drew pro scouts and a media horde to Texas A&M to showcase his skills and advertise his value. The university had sunk perhaps $120,000 into scholarships for Manziel during his abbreviated stay in College Station, while donations to the school soared by $300 million. One study attributed $37 million of that to Manziel’s magical 2012 season alone.

Obviously, many universities see big-time sports as good investments even if academic reputations suffer. As the Star Tribune’s Patrick Reusse recalled, it now seems quaint that Ohio State vetoed a Buckeyes trip to the Rose Bowl in 1961 for fear of losing academic integrity, and that Minnesota denied the basketball Gophers a trip to the postseason in 1966 because players would miss too many classes. That couldn’t happen now; there’s too much money at stake.

The current system produces a thrilling brand of athletic entertainment, as attested by the basketball skills of the various Badgers, Gators, Huskies and Wildcats that have been on display this weekend at the Final Four. Surely there are some serious students among these marvelous players, and thousands more among those who swim, wrestle, and play tennis, volleyball and field hockey for their schools.

But, for the big-money sports — football and men’s basketball — it’s time for the NCAA to remove the cloak of pretense. As the Northwestern decision suggests, these players are mainly employees who make a lot of money for their schools and coaches. In 2012, the top eight collegiate conferences drew nearly $1.2 billion from TV contracts alone. Kentucky’s basketball coach, John Calipari, makes $5.4 million a year, eight times more than the university’s president.

NCAA President Mark Emmert has suggested a needs-based stipend for players, and maybe that’s a good start. But it would be better if the NCAA would just admit what everyone else already knows.