FOR NEARLY 15 years, the governing body of intercollegiate athletics has been worrying, arguing and litigating over what academic standards freshmen should meet to be eligible for varsity sports. At issue are such thorny matters as SAT scores, curriculum and racial and ethnic disparities in education. Now a committee of the NCAA is considering a proposal that would greatly simplify things, at least in men's basketball: Just prohibit all freshmen.

The idea of barring freshmen isn't as radical as it sounds. It's the way things were in major college sports until 1972, when the NCAA lifted the restriction. The reasoning behind the ban then was that young people, usually away from home for the first time and facing new and difficult academic challenges, needed a year to learn how to study and adjust to the world of college. This argument is even more convincing today, considering the growth in intercollegiate athletics in the quarter-century since freshmen were admitted. In the major sports, schedules are longer, the pressure is more intense, and the financial stakes and temptations are far greater. The only thing wrong with the proposed rules change, which may be considered by the NCAA next week, is that it's limited to men's basketball, because the graduation rate there is low (about two in five players get a degree). It ought to apply to all sports.

Much of the discussion of the proposed ban has focused on what it might do to and for the game, both at the college and professional levels. The more important question is how it will affect young people whose athletic ability has given them the opportunity both to open their minds to learning and earn a college degree. There's also the good name of intercollegiate athletics to be considered. No single step would do more to restore the credibility of the colleges and universities engaged in top-level sports than giving freshmen a year to be freshmen.