It is scapegoat season. Top managers of the Soviet atomic energy program have just been fired for the Chernobyl disaster. This being the Soviet Union, some will be up for criminal prosecution. They are, in the Politburo's chilling turn of phrase, "guilty of the accident." Over here, we don't use the phrase, but we accept the idea. NASA officials in charge at the time of the Challenger disaster have been reassigned or retired.

On a somewhat different scale, the entire sports program, perhaps even the entire University of Maryland, is being ransacked for misdeeds in the apparent search for someone other than Len Bias to blame for Len Bias's death.

sk The revelations about Maryland have been coming fast. It turns out that (1) Bias did not graduate (as if with his multimillion-dollar salary but without his B.G.S. he could not have made his way in the world). (2) Other Maryland players have had a high flunk-out rate, another surprise for big-time college sports. (3) One of Bias's ex-teammates was known to have been using marijuana two or three years ago, a shocking revelation about a 21-year-old. (4) And -- five-column headline in The Post sports section -- "Maryland Basketball Players Charged Calls to Assistant coach's credit card ." (And later paid the department back.) Goodness. Where will it stop?

It is true that there is a scandal in college sports about under-the-table payments. There is also a scandal about ballplayers being phony students and ending up without a degree and, unless they play as well as Len Bias did, without a future. But what does this have to do with Bias's death, except for the fact that something terrible happened without an obvious villain, and the frantic search for one is under way? A young man died. Someone must pay.

To pin on one person responsibility for a large, inscrutable event serves two purposes. One is to restore an illusion of moral balance. The other is to restore an illusion of control over the uncontrollable. When a professional sports team fires the coach, management will issue a statement saying something like this: He is a terrific coach, has a 150 I.Q., a wonderful personality, and a terrific future, but we have to fire him because the team is losing and you can't fire the team, and you have to do something.

It is very much the same in vast national enterprises such as atomic power and space exploration. When a system as complex and interconnected as that produces a great catastrophe, you can't fire, nor is there moral satisfaction in blaming, the whole system. You need bodies. You find the top people in charge at the time and sack them. In the U.S.S.R., you try them.

In politics, where scapegoating is the norm, you vote them out. Our political system is so immense that it takes years for the effects, good and bad, of one act to work their way into the open. By then, presidents are rarely around to take the blame or the credit. Jimmy Carter bravely pushed through oil decontrol in a terribly unfavorable political climate. A few years later the Federal Reserve squeezed the money supply, OPEC exploded, and presto! No inflation. Who gets the credit? Ronald Reagan. And guess who will get credit for the post-deficit inflation in the 1990s when we monetize the debt he built up?

It must be admitted that scapegoating does have some distant relationship to both justice and deterrence. The Chinese government periodically goes on anti-crime campaigns, and the poor suckers (including ordinary thieves) who happen to be rounded up during those unfortunate months are likely as not to be carted off to some arena for public execution. (Between August and October 1983 more than 5,000.)

As an example, say the authorities. More as a catharsis. There is an element of justice in that these people deserve some punishment, though hardly death. And there is some element of deterrence, in that capital punishment will discourage, say, petty theft (a relationship that greatly impressed the British during the 18th and the early 19th century). But the real reason is the need for exorcism. Crime? We've got to do something. Hence the idea of the exemplary hanging.

In this sophisticated age we give Nobel prizes to no more than three people at a time -- that is the rule -- for advances for which no three individuals can possibly claim credit. They are often the work of a generation of scientists. And when disaster strikes, we must find the one person to whom to attribute something that could not possibly be his own doing. Three thousand years ago, the ancient Middle Eastern tribe that invented for us the idea of the scapegoat went about it this way: once a year it would take one goat and send it into the wilderness as a way to atone for the unatonable sins of an entire people. One goat, once a year, to clear everybody. And we call that primitive.