When a family or business hits bad times, every expense gets a thorough scouring. But in Virginia, where financial woes are forcing major bloodletting and the governor warns of plenty more to come, one expense stands untouched: The state's colleges must raise tuition, cut staff and close entire departments, but heaven forbid touching the golden calf of athletics.

Terry Meyers, an English professor at the College of William and Mary, has spent years crusading to get his school to lance the idol and spend some of those sacred dollars on academics rather than games. Failing that, he'd at least like some honesty in how colleges raise money for sports.

The great myth is that the big-money collegiate sports make a profit. At most schools, they don't even come close. (William and Mary's football team brought in $1.7 million in revenue in 2001. But the program spent $2 million.)

So athletics are supported by student fees; at William and Mary, each student pays $885 per year in intercollegiate athletic fees.

But that title appears nowhere on a tuition bill, nor in catalogues or publicity materials. Rather, the athletics fee is subsumed in a "required annual fee" of about $2,600 covering sports, recreation and health services. (Compare that with the University of Maryland's $303 athletics fee -- clearly separated from other student charges.)

William and Mary, like all public colleges in Virginia, recently announced a hefty tuition increase; in this case, a 16 percent jump, to $5,820 a year for state residents.

"Students have been told that finding courses and seats in courses will be harder," Meyers says, "and even the governor has warned that some students might have to take an extra year in college to find the full load of courses."

Sports for mere mortals are dispensable: Meyers notes that William and Mary is saving money by doing away with its physical education requirement, but athletics for the chosen few remains untouchable.

"It seems unconscionable for colleges to charge so much for something so peripheral to their missions," Meyers says. He proposes that for every $100 increase in tuition, the athletics fee be trimmed by $50. "That would cushion the rise in overall costs for students and their parents. It would also make an important, though still largely symbolic, statement about what programs are central."

The professor won a small victory this fall when the college agreed to shift a small portion of the student fee -- all of $40 -- from athletics to academics, something administrators had long argued could not be done.

Being coy about the river of money that flows into athletics is hardly unique to Virginia's colleges. But it's all the more offensive given the rough waters that state governments are navigating right now.

It's even more objectionable given the powerful findings in William Bowen and James Shulman's book "The Game of Life," which studied 90,000 alumni and students nationwide to show that winning teams don't result in more donations to universities, sports programs at all levels lose money, athletes play no special leadership role on campus, and athletes are much more likely to finish at the bottom of their class.

The challenge facing the NCAA's new president, Myles Brand, is to use those findings to restore sanity to college sports -- to stand tall against TV networks and corporate sponsors, to send a message that college kids can play sports without the commercialism and careerism that seep down into high schools and threaten to create something akin to the old East German Olympic breeding program.

Brand has the standing to do the right thing; he's the college president who finally sacked Bobby Knight at Indiana. But in an interview with the Post's Liz Clarke last week, Brand sounded defeated before even starting.

The only way reform will come is if people such as Brand and Meyers win support from parents and students who pay tuition -- and those sky-high hidden fees.

In Tuesday's column about academic freedom, I mentioned writer Norman Finkelstein, who lectured recently at Georgetown University. Although neo-Nazi groups have cited his work in support of their theories, Finkelstein has never denied the existence of the Holocaust, and I did not intend to suggest that.