THE PHRASE "athletic scholarship" is a contradiction in terms. There is nothing scholarly about giving students financial support so they can participate in athleltics. So it is with mixed emotions that we learn that HEW has seized on "athletic scholarships" as a way to ensure that women have an equal opportunity with men to compete in intercollegiate sports.

The new interpretation of an old law, announced Tuesday by Secretary Patricia Harris, says colleges and universities must allocate their athletic scholarship money between men and women in the same proportion as their participation in athletics. This means a college that hires one out of every three of its male intercollegiate competitors must also hire one out of every three of its female competitors.

That seems fair; as long as so-called educational institutions are in the business of hiring athletes, they might as well spread the work between the sexes. The scholarship requirement seems more workable than one proposed a year ago by former secretary Joseph Califano that would have required equal per capita spending on male and female athletes. And the new rule, taken along with previously imposed requirements, should give women the equal athletic opportunity Congress said a few years ago they should have -- provided all the requirements are enforced, of course.

But none of this gets at the real problem of college athletics. Take, for example, part of the response to Secretary Harris made by Walter Byers, executive director of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. "Unfortunately," he said, "the new directive placed a sex-dictated quota system upon scholarship, instead of letting such monies properly be awarded upon the basis of merit."

Scholarship? Merit? What he's talking about is the ability to knock down or run over people on the football field and to put a round ball through a hoop 10 feet above a gymnasium floor. As long as those abilities and others like them -- say, hitting a smaller ball over a net or knocking an even smaller one into a hole in the ground -- are regarded by colleges as examples of "merit" that deserve to be rewarded with "scholarships," the problem of equal opportunities for male and female students will continue. Just remember that NCAA rules permit a "university" to hire 95 football players and nine coaches and that the NCAA is collecting, roughly, $40 million this year for television rights to the games college students play.

We have a much simpler solution to the problem of equal opportunity. It is to abolish all "athletic scholarships" and put the money in a fund that aids students on the basis of financial need and, even, academic excellence. That would put men and women on an absolutely even footing and put the colleges and universities back into the business for which they were reated: educating the minds of their students, instead of exploiting their bodies.