THERE IS AN AURA of gentility about many of the universities that make up the Atlantic Coast Conference. Virginia, Maryland, Duke, Wake Forest, North Carolina, Clemson, North Carolina State and Georgia Tech all pride themselves on being something more than diploma mills. But there is nothing genteel about what the ACC is trying to do to Prince George's County. It is pressuring the county in an effort to evade about $100,000 in taxes.

The ACC commissioner, Robert James, didn't describe what he had in mind in quite those terms when he appeared before the Prince George's County Council last week. All he wanted, he explained, was an exemption from the county's admission tax on the tickets to next month's ACC basketball tournament at the Capital Centre. The conference doesn't think it is right for the county to collect its tax on tickets sold through universities located in other states.

Mr. James explained how much money the out-of-state spectators will contribute to local government anyway when they pay for food and hotel rooms. And he said the ACC had gotten such an exemption the other time it permitted its prime sports event to be played this far north. Asked if the ACC would refuse to schedule the tournament again at the Capital Centre unless the tax is waived, Mr. James then said, "I would be less than candid if I didn't say yes."

There are other ways to phrase that answer. No $100,000, no future tournaments is one. Pay now, play later is another. But those are too crude for the gents of the ACC. It's not as if the ACC needed a waiver from the tax so it could sell the tickets to its tournament. They were all sold long ago and would have been sold out just as quickly if the prices had been 10 percent or 50 percent higher than the $60 a set, which will gross the conference more than $1 million. In fact, when the tournament starts, single-session tickets will be scalped at prices many times their face value.

The problem, then, is not money but arrogance. The ACC is the sports big-time, and it sets its own rules. Local laws and taxes, what are they? Either you do things our way, Mr. James seemed to be telling Prince George's County, or we won't do business with you. That posture reflects a set of values unbecoming of any university, let alone the eight that compose this conference.