PEOPLE MAY ARGUE about the severity--or lack of it--in the University of Maryland's formal reprimand of basketball coach Lefty Driesell, but the move does represent an important statement about the place of athletics at College Park. And if Mr. Driesell still doesn't get the message or ignores it, he should be fired.

Clearly, as the university has concluded, Mr. Driesell's intervention in the disciplinary case of one of his players was "unacceptable"--and the coach says he understands and accepts the decision. This intervention included telephone calls to a woman whose complaint against the player resulted in the player's athletic ineligibility at a critical time in the basketball season. According to University Chancellor John B. Slaughter, Mr. Driesell called the woman and told her that "the next day's game was going to be nationally televised. He said that the disciplinary matter was going to come out if the basketball player did not play. He stated that he felt that this publicity would hurt the player and hurt" the woman.

But this incident was only part of an atmosphere in which the place of athletics in general and Mr. Driesell in particular at the university have been distorted over the years. It was embodied in Mr. Driesell's statement after his player could not participate in a game against rival Virginia that he "had some pull around here, and now we'll see how much."

Not nearly so much: first, the decision on the player had come after all judicial processes at the university had been exhausted--and it stuck, without regard to the player's athletic status. That was important. Second, the university did not back off, but investigated and then reprimanded Mr. Driesell. This, too, was done with the complete cooperation and understanding of the university's athletic director, Dick Dull, who put the whole matter in perspective:

"I believe it to be appropriate under the facts established," said Mr. Dull. "I believe that it stands for the proposition that athletics are subservient and are a component of the educational process at Maryland. . . . It is a public apology by a man of high respect that has gotten media attention throughout the country, and I personally believe it is substantial in its effect on Coach Driesell."

If so, Maryland will be a better place for it.