This could go down in the books as the year sports struck out. We have had more than the usual number of drug scandals, even some convictions, point-shaving in college basketball and now the confession of a Texas Christian University booster-cum-trustee that he not only recruited football players with gifts and cash but put them on salary once they got to campus. On recruiting trips, he came to pay.

When it comes to assigning blame for this sort of thing, the culprit is usually said to be something called "TV money." Without it, collegiate sports would return to the days of pure amateurism when players would win one for the Gipper just for the fun of it. No more. Dick Lowe, the TCU trustee, tells us that "a good blue-chip running back" is worth anywhere from $10,000 to $25,000 down and $1,000 a month until either graduation or an injury parts him from the payroll.

Lowe, a former football player himself, is one of those who points a finger at TV money. He has a point. TV has made big-time football extremely lucrative. Now a winning team not only fills the stadium but sells cars clear across the country. The money from a sport such as football can keep the entire athletic program rolling in dough with -- who knows? -- a buck or two left over for such extracurricular activities as research and teaching. Some schools are quaint that way.

But with all due regard to the expertise of Lowe when it comes to corrupting the young and feckless, let me suggest that money is not the whole story. Athletes who perform before empty bleachers -- weightlifters, for instance -- are also corrupted. Many are alleged to use steroids and growth hormones, not because their performance will fill the stadium or, upon graduation, result in a contract with some pro team, but because they lust for what they think is the ultimate -- winning. These young men risk injury and death through the use of these drugs just so they can win. For some of them, winning's not everything or the only thing. It's the last thing.

Sports, as an NBC promo suggests, has been turned into a metaphor for war in which anything goes. A certain team, we are told by a voice right out of the March of Time, "takes no prisoners." Gee, they must be tough. Coaches talk about losing as if it were death itself -- and not just in the pros, where money is on the line. High school and college coaches utter the same nonsense, forgetting they're instructing young people in a sport and not sending Iranian teen-agers across an Iraqi minefield.

Coaches are not the only ones who talk this way. Sports broadcasters, many of them former jocks themselves, either promote the same ethic or never question it. They nearly choke with admiration at the discipline of a 12-year- old who rises to swim at 4 a.m. without suggesting that there is such a thing as carrying things too far. They proclaim the brilliance of coaches who are martinets, and never pause to wonder about those poor souls who hobble off the field after being injured. The game just goes on.

Winning is important. But first and foremost sports is supposed to be about building character. If winning means taking illegal drugs, if it means risking your health and your life, if it means paying athletes, boosting grades, recruiting athletes who are practically illiterate and sending them out into the world with nothing but a fading ability to run 100 yards, then sports is becoming the personification of the doctrine that the end justifies the means. Instead of building character, it destroys it.

Lowe, the TCU booster, has to be given credit for 'fessing up and renouncing his former ways. But he is instructive nevertheless. Unlike the players, he could not go on to the pros. Unlike the coach, his job was never on the line. Unlike the president of the school, he never had to meet the payroll. Nevertheless, he and people like him wanted to win so badly they corrupted their school, their sport, young athletes and, for good measure, themselves. When it comes to losing, that has to be an indoor record.