THE NATIONAL Collegiate Athletic Association's Division I colleges and universities have the biggest and wealthiest athletic programs. But this week it looked as if they were finally going to start taking the academic side of college athletics seriously . . . at least it looked that way for one brief moment, until everyone was brought sharply back to the reality of big-time college athletics. By a 163-151 vote, the NCAA Division I schools moved to raise the academic standards that student-athletes must meet to compete on athletic teams. The vote set a national standard. Freshman athletes would need a cumulative 1.6 grade-point average at the end of the year, based on a four-point scale, to remain eligible. Sophomores would need a 1.8 average, and juniors would need a 2.0 to be able to compete as seniors.

That was a monumental step. The NCAA has no such standard now. Student-athletes would have to study harder. Coaches and athletic department officials would have to help them do it. Some of those athletes would then graduate with more valuable degrees.

Sound too good to be true? It was. The Division I folks started thinking about what they had just done, and in a second ballot voted 162 to 143 against the new academic standard.

Several arguments were offered to explain why student-athletes would not benefit from studying harder: The new rule would discriminate against student-athletes enrolled in tough courses. (We never said they were good arguments.) Vanderbilt's athletic director said that higher grade requirements would force student-athletes to major in "tourism and Canadian fly fishing." Perhaps he means that all athletes are morons who can't earn a "D+/C-" (the 1.6 grade average that would be needed as freshmen) in real college courses.

The fact of the matter is that greed won out. Higher academic standards might mean that too many star athletes would be ineligible to compete. That would mean fewer victories and smaller revenues. Division II schools -- with smaller athletic programs -- voted to implement the new academic standards. The Big Ten conference, made up of Division I universities, also stands out with even tougher academic requirements. Big Ten student-athletes need at least a 1.8 grade average as freshmen and a 1.9 average as sophomores to maintain their eligibility. Perhaps they care about what happens when athletic careers end and it comes time to find a decent job. Too many of the other Division I schools care only about two things -- winning and money.