COLLEGE SPORTS INC. The Athletic Department vs The University By Murray Sperber Henry Holt. 416 pp. $19.95

NOT LONG AGO an alumnus of a leading university returned to his alma mater to receive an award in recognition of his uncommonly distinguished career. In advance of his visit he was contacted by representatives of the university who told him they wanted his stay to be as enjoyable as possible and asked if there was anything in particular he would like to do. Yes, he said: He would like to meet the university's celebrated basketball coach. The response was immediate and emphatic: That, he was told, would be "impossible."

So it goes these days in American higher education, where the athletic tail wags the academic dog. As Murray Sperber makes plain in College Sports Inc., the most comprehensive among a recent rash of books on the subject, the athletic department is a fiefdom all unto itself, "a huge commercial entertainment conglomerate, with operating methods and objectives totally separate from, and mainly opposed to, the educational aims of the schools that house its franchises." The basketball coach -- like the football coach and all others in the conglomerate -- is answerable only to the athletic director; if he chooses not to participate in the school's real life by giving a notable alumnus five minutes, there is nothing that anyone can do about it.

This is an outrage, of course, but by now so familiar an outrage that everyone takes it for granted. But Sperber is here to remind us that big-time intercollegiate sport is more than an entertaining sideshow at the periphery of campus life; it is in fact a cancer that already eats away at the scholarly and budgetary well-being of the campuses and in time could well consume them. Easy though it may be to enjoy the entertainment that intercollegiate sport provides while ignoring its corrupting influence, this merely allows the sports conglomerate to increase its size and entrench its position.

The list of its offenses is long and chilling and mostly well-known, but I have not seen them more thoroughly catalogued than in Sperber's account. Perhaps the greatest virtue of College Sports Inc. -- apart from its cool tone and its refusal to engage in name-calling -- is that it provides the specifics that give weight to commonplace generalizations. To wit:

Among critics of the sports conglomerate it has long been doubted that big-time sport really, as claimed, brings financial support to the university as a whole. Sperber proves the case. He shows that contributions from foundations and alumni frequently decline when institutions acquire reputations as jock factories and that, conversely, schools where big-time sport has been reformed or eliminated have often ended up with greater outside financial support for their academic programs. The proportion of alumni who contribute to athletic programs, he finds, is "rarely . . . more than 1 to 2 per cent."

Critics of big-time sport have long bemoaned the role of the financial backers known as "boosters." Sperber shows that this role is far more damaging than most have imagined. Relatively few boosters are alumni of the institutions whose football and basketball teams they underwrite and most of them "refuse to contribute to the institution's academic programs." Further: "Boosters are usually can-do business types and the distinction between ethical conduct and succeeding by any means is often unclear to them. When this syndrome is combined with their sense of ownership of a college sports team and their desire to see that team win at any cost, they ignore NCAA and all other rules."

Critics often feel they must concede that big-time sport pays its own way and sometimes underwrites worthy intramural programs. In fact, Sperber demonstrates conclusively that all but a handful of sports programs lose money and, worse, that they raid other treasuries, student fees in particular and, at public institutions, tax revenues, in order to cover their losses. Athletic directors and coaches are paid preposterous salaries and benefit from innumerable perquisites, all beyond the imagining of ordinary professors and administrators, yet they refuse to be accountable for the expenditures of the athletic department, offering only the vague and insupportable claim that "you have to spend money to make money."

Of the many things Sperber accomplishes in this book, perhaps the most important and useful is to show that big-time sport is a drain on the finances of the system it allegedly benefits. Its effects on higher education's academic standards, its exploitation of poor black athletes, its pervasive internal corruption, its perpetuation of an idiotic "coaching subculture" that is utterly hostile to the scholarly ideal -- all of this is well-known and well-documented elsewhere, though Sperber properly includes it in his indictment. But the financial case against big-time sport is another matter, and one that could well provide the means necessary to pull it down.

So long as the boosters and their sycophants in the athletic departments can get away with the illusion that sport pays its own way, there's little reason for the ordinary teacher or student or alumnus to question its existence. But if sport can't pay -- if, for example, sport is soaking up the fees of undergraduates who can't even get into the arena to see "their" basketball team play -- that is another matter altogether. An argument about academic standards may seem elusive and ethereal to many people, but cold evidence that big-time sport is losing money and stealing from other departments to balance its books is just the kind of proof that often moves Americans to decisive action; whatever our faults as a people, say it for us that we have a low tolerance for institutions that don't pay their own way and that cheat in order to stay in business.

Sperber documents it all: the rapidly rising liability insurance costs that are inflating athletic budgets, the lavish expenses that are charged for recruiting and conventions and other "business" costs, the shoe contracts that turn coaches and their athletes into well-paid whores and, by no means least, the "millions of untaxed dollars in booster donations and sales of priority seats" that should be ripe for Internal Revenue Service plucking. There's no getting around it: Big-time sport is as much a financial scam as an academic disgrace.

So what do we do? Sperber is on the right track: "If schools insisted that their athletic programs be either self-sufficient separate businesses or genuine student activities, the current financial chicanery and fraud -- as well as the drain on university resources -- would end." It's as simple as that: Go genuinely pro or genuinely amateur. But so far as the athletic directors and their puppets at the NCAA are concerned, that's anathema. They've got a good thing going -- good for them, bad for everyone else -- and they've so terrorized the academic establishment that resistance to them thus far has largely been scattered, disorganized and futile.

But nothing is forever. The athletic directors may think they've got the world by the tail, but then so did Michael Milken and Donald Trump. The case against big-time sport may be building slowly, but it's building steadily; College Sports Inc. is an important contribution to it and in time no doubt will prove a useful one