The colleges, pros and many athletes insist agents are a growing cancer in big-bucks sports. If so, it is the easiest cancer to arrest, except that the best healers are the very people who allowed it to begin-and to spread.

In many cases, an athlete's most valuable friend is his agent, the wise and trustworthy fellow capable of bringing order to an otherwise chaotic financial life and tough enough to negotiate dazzling contracts with the stingiest owners.

But a great number, perhaps the majority, of sports agents are among the lowest form of life, parasites who promise athletes unrealistc contracts for exorbitant fees and frequently mismanage whatever money theydo produce.

"Outrageous," said Ed Garvey, executive director of the NFL Players Association. "The number of agents is in direct proportion to the unemployment figures. That a guy like (Mike) Trope can make $700,000 this year is crazy. That's how much we get in dues from the 1,400 players in the league."

Abuses have been widespread enough for at least one state, New York, to consider legislation ordering the licensing of sports agents-and the NFLPA has tried to adopt a code of ethics for the men who represent its players.

Now that the established pro football, basketball and hockey leagues have successfully fought off competition, the value of agents has greatly diminished. Yet last week yielded some of the most disturbing news in years.

To Sports Illustrated and The Washington Post, Trope admitted violating NCAA rules by signing football players before their eligibility ended, saying: "Before this year, if I signed a player, I just signed him early and broke the NCAA rule outright.

"Then another agent would come along and say to the kid, 'Look, if you want to sign with me for half the percentage that Mike Trope is charging, I can get you out of the contract because you signed before your eligibility was up and he doesn't want to be embarrassed by all the negative publicity he'll get.' In essence, it was a form of blackmail."

Trope claims to have broken new ground in sports agentry this year, to have found a way to bind players to him early without breaking NCAA rules. The NCAA does not agree-and, if it wins, Maryland will be one of the schools to suffer numerous retroactive losses.

The Terrapins' Steve Atkins told Sports Illustrated he signed one of Trope's unique "offer sheets" before his senior season last year. He added: "I did something wrong. I didn't want the NCAA to do something to Maryland, but I just needed some money to pay some bills."

Players have been signing early, either directly with teams or with agents, for years. Villanova and Western Kentucky lost final-four money and prestige in basketball for it. LSU suspended a star because of it last season. Commissioner Pete Rozelle admitted the NFL did it during the war years with the AFL.

What immediately comes to mind here is that the people screaming the loudest-the -colleges-are the ones who could eliminate most of the problem. The sad truth is that agents provide a service the colleges should offer-and would if they cared deeply about a player after his last tackle or jump shot.

Of course, the seeds for whatever seedy tactics agents use with college players are planted by the colleges. It all begins with recruiting, the inflated notion of self-importance athletes get when dozens of respected coaches beg for -and in many instances buy their signatures on a grant-in-aid.

While in school, the athlete is allowed to play before he should, as a freshman, and either sees or reads about broken contracts, humane coaches fired for not winning and coaches who buy players honored because they win.

So why not take a loan from an agent? Or a car?

If the colleges were not so obsessed with their own recruiting, they could eliminate most of the sour aspects of sports-agent recruiting simply by helping athletes negotiate their contracts.

How tough can it be?

Most colleges have experts in business and either law schools or easy access to lawyers. They not only should offer the service they should offer it free, because the athlete with pro potential has helped generate so much past income and will generate so much future goodwill.

Trope began his career at age 20, while a student at Southern California. So helping an athlete receive an equitable contract cannot be all that difficult. Also, the going rate for draft choices, round by round, can be determined with a call to the NFLPA.

Hardly any schools are thoughtful enough to offer this service, although Maryland's Jerry Claiborne and Lefty Driesell are among the coaches who give their players as much useful advice as possible.

"I once offered to talk with some of the Maryland (football) players," Garvey said, "but (former Athlete Director Jim Kehoe) poo-pooed it, said he didn't think it was necessary."

Still, if the colleges did offer the player the courtesy of negotiating his first pro contract, that would not totally stop the unsavory agents from early under-the-table offers.

"But if (NFL) management and the players association adopted a set of standards," Garvey said, "made every agent list his fee structure and background, you could attack the problem at the point of entry.

"That will be a very prominent demand, immediately."