What's happening with the NCAA and CFA is an inevitable, if regrettable, revolution in big-time college football. Sixty-one of America's most prestigious universities have announced, in effect, that they make up a professional football league. The NCAA can go to a warm spot in a handbasket for all the CFA cares.

These 61 schools of the College Football Association have made their own TV deal in defiance of NCAA rules they helped draft. For $180 million of NBC-TV's money over four years, the CFA would sell television rights to its members' games beginning in 1982 with prime-time shows on Saturday nights. The CFA has the big shots, such as Notre Dame and Pitt and Alabama, including those from every major conference except the Big Ten and the Pacific-10 (hubris at work in those leagues, one suspects).

"We want to develop college football the way it ought to be developed," said Joe Paterno, the Penn State coach. Appearing on NBC (where else?), Paterno told Tom Snyder two nights ago, "We think the NCAA is asking ABC to put on a product the people don't want."

This marketing jargon came easily to the coach. College football used to be a part of the educational process, a tiny part perhaps but a part. Joe Paterno made his university's commencement speech not long after he turned down a seven-figure deal to go to the NFL. He said money is no good reason to sell out ideals. Now he speaks in marketing jargon.

College football is "a product" to be sold between commercials. If the people "don't want" the product, there is hell to pay. That means the ratings are poor, which means the network can't charge its advertisers as much, meaning the NCAA gets less money.

And Joe Paterno's Penn State gets less money.

Not only that, but Penn State has to share its money with, good heavens, Western Kentucky and Slippery Rock.

This once was considered a good idea. The NCAA is a socialistic democracy. Its 700 members decided by vote to help each other. They were all brothers with one ambition: to build an honest athletic system compatible with a university's responsibility to teach. Sharing revenues, the rich helping the poor, would make it easier. So the 700 members voted to share the TV money, with the big-timers on TV getting most of it but a small part trickling down to Slippery Rock.

Then the financial crunch hit the colleges. The big-timers became wonderful businessmen. They squeezed every dollar from the customers by using sophisticated marketing techniques. The NCAA did its best to help by sanctioning more bowl games.

It also occurred to the big-timers that they would have more money if they didn't share it with the little-timers.

Meanwhile, as part of an economy drive, the NCAA's 700 members also approved many new rules for college football. These rules cut the size of coaching staffs. They limited recruiting. They cut down the number of scholarships.

Now the little-timers were telling the big-timers how to act. It wasn't only economy, either. Some little-timers saw the big-timers running toward professionalism at a dear cost to education.

About here the big-timers awoke to the fact that Slippery Rock's vote offset Penn State's.

So the revolution began. First the big-timers tried to change the NCAA process. They wanted separate voting procedures, so the Slippery Rocks would not dictate to the Penn States. This failed. And out of frustration at their failure to change the system, the 61 schools formed the CFA.

Until NBC came along to bankroll the revolution, the CFA was only a mouthpiece for its members.

Now it is a threat to kill the NCAA. The socialistic democracy would be supplanted by an aristocracy.

The NCAA could die as an effective organization if the CFA ratifies the NBC deal. It could die because it would have neither power nor money.

ABC and CBS signed contracts worth $263.5 million and designed to keep NCAA football off NBC. Now that the 61 big-timers seem certain to belong to NBC, the other networks would be left only with the Big Ten, Pac-10 and the dregs. ABC and CBS would cancel their contracts.

The NCAA front office has made noises about its option of expelling or suspending the CFA schools if they appear on telecasts other than those approved by the NCAA.

That option is institutional suicide. The NCAA would lose not only most of its big-time football but its basketball tournament as we know it.

All strength would lie with the CFA. As soon as possible, ABC and CBS would leap to the CFA side.

R.I.P., NCAA.

So if the NCAA wants to forgo the suicide of telling the CFA teams to get lost, it will forgive and forget this week's humiliation. It will take the CFA schools back into the fold, granting them the special concessions they couldn't get in a democratic vote.

This is not pretty. The old Joe Paterno could rail against such naked aggression as destructive of the college ideal. What it is, if not pretty, is the reality of today. Big-time college football is professional football with only one difference: the players don't get paid.