Because a couple of letters to the editor of The Washington Post raised pertinent questions last week, we need to go around the bases one more time on this vexing issue of "big-time" intercollegiate athletics. The first letter, written in response to a column by David S. Broder expressing views similar to mine, noted that for its author, a graduate of Duke, attending her alma mater's games had been an enjoyable and valuable part of her college years that she would not want to have missed. The second correspondent, taking issue with a column of my own, wondered how "so many of these underachieving students manage to get out of high school" and asked:

" . . . why should colleges that compete at the big-time level and that recruit able students be penalized because of the sins of other schools? There are more than a handful of universities that have successfully competed in major intercollegiate sports whose student-athletes have graduated on time and gone on to successful careers. I see no reason why these schools should lose the opportunity to compete on a high level because other schools refuse to play by the rules."

Both letters make useful contributions to a discussion that will, it can be confidently predicted, go on for years, and both suggest that a clearer definition of "big-time" intercollegiate athletics needs to be agreed upon. In urging the abolition of big-time athletics I was not saying, nor would I ever be so naive as to suggest, that colleges should stop playing games against each other; for participant and spectator alike, as the Duke alumna correctly points out, intercollegiate sport provides pleasures both individual and collective. There is not, to my knowledge, a single institution of undergraduate higher education that denies these pleasures to its students; to suggest that any do so would be irresponsible.

But big-time sport has nothing to do with these pleasures except that it encourages a certain degree of school spirit, of the more bellicose and chauvinistic variety. Big-time sport is not undertaken or administered for the benefit of students; quite to the contrary, as the seating arrangements at any big-time basketball or football arena demonstrate, it is for the benefit of a relatively small number of wealthy and self-regarding alumni. Big-time sport has no real connection with the daily life of a college or university except that its athletes wear the colors of the institution in which they are enrolled and play their home games on its athletic fields.

A definition of big-time athletics begins, then, with the understanding that it has no relationship with the academic pursuits that are the purpose of higher education. A school plays big-time athletics if the players on its major teams gain admission as athletes first, students second; though "major" means football and/or basketball at most schools, it can mean other sports -- wrestling, hockey, lacrosse -- in certain parts of the country, and schools that bend the rules to admit gifted athletes in these sports are every bit as big-time in their own small-time way as the football and basketball powers. A school that admits athletes who are, in the dour words of the University of Georgia report, "unprepared to function in an academic environment," is not merely big time, but criminally big time.

Further: Big-time sport is being played when the athletic department is effectively beyond the control of a university's administrative and academic officers. A school whose athletic director and major coaches answer more directly to alumni booster clubs -- and to each other -- than to the president or chancellor is playing big-time sport. A school whose athletic department has a multimillion-dollar budget subsidized less by student fees than by alumni contributions, gate receipts and broadcast rights is playing big-time sport. A school whose football or basketball coach earns more than $100,000 in salary and other inducements is playing in the big-time.

Thus it's not sport that should be abolished from college, but big-time sport. The distinction is clear and crucial: Between amateurism and professionalism, between open student participation and mercenary representation. Only a fool would suggest the termination of football games between Oklahoma and Nebraska, basketball games between Kentucky and Louisville, baseball games between Miami and Texas; only a fool would suggest that these games be played on intramural fields rather than large arenas, and attended only by students and faculty. It's not the elimination of intercollegiate sport that's necessary, but bringing it into perspective, making it an integral part of college and university life rather than a satellite of that life.

What it all boils down to is that intercollegiate athletics should be played by real students, not by hirelings euphemistically characterized as "student-athletes." No student should be granted admission to any member institution of the National Collegiate Athletic Association for the primary purpose of playing sports; no prospective student, however gifted athletically, should be admitted unless his or her academic record meets the standards required of every other applicant; no student should be permitted to play intercollegiate sport who cannot satisfy the academic requirements for participation in any other university-sanctioned extracurricular activity; no student should receive scholarship assistance in any form so long as that assistance is intended to ensure his or her participation in intercollegiate athletics.

The argument that intercollegiate sport is a way for the underprivileged to gain an education is specious on its face. Why should the athletically gifted underprivileged be singled out for exemption from normal academic standards, as opposed to other needy students? What gives them the inside track on preferential treatment? Who really believes that the majority of them actually receive real educations, as opposed to passage through artificial curricula designed to ease their academic burdens and maintain their eligibility?

Yes, it is true that some deserving young people have won athletic scholarships and have subsequently gone on to become pillars of one community or another. But a few happy successes scarcely justify a system that is not merely indifferent to academic standards but often, as at Georgia, openly hostile to them. As it now exists, big-time intercollegiate sport is a self-sustaining, professional enterprise to which colleges and universities are mere appendages; only when sport becomes just another department in the university will it have found its proper place.

Which leads, finally, to the question about high schools. Yes, it is a shame and an outrage that they are graduating students who can barely read or write, and a terrible reflection on the state of American public education. But so far as intercollegiate sport is concerned, that is not the point. The point is that colleges and universities, which are supposed to set and maintain the standards of higher education, are willfully violating them to satisfy the greed of the big-time sports machine. It isn't the fault of the high schools that ineligible students are admitted to college in order to play big-time sport; it's the fault of higher education, and the buck can't be passed to anyone else.