Of all the college athletic issues, one always gets overlooked, probably because it is fashionable not to buck NCAA wisdom on the matter and also because it would cost a lot of money to correct. But the rule that allows freshmen to compete in big-time sports at big-time schools is wrong - and somebody ought to at least begin thinking about it.

"We're letting the kids down, failing them as educators," said Digger Phelps of Notre Dame. "The kids are being cheated - by a system."

"I'd love to see it eliminated,' said Joe Paterno of Penn State, "and I know coaches who are extremely well-known have brought up the point that maybe we ought to think about making them ineligible and talking about different numbers."

Numbers. This is what nearly every discussion of the issue ultimately involves. Not whether teen-agers are able to make a smooth, instant transition from high school to major-college athletics - and the vast majority cannot - but whether the athletic factories will go broke if freshmen do not play.

Some of us have contended for some time that what the NCAA and others call student-athletes are in fact athlete-students. How can it be otherwise when the NCAA lowers its admission standards for athletes and then puts more pressure on them academically by allowing them to concentrate immediately on sports?

"I'm amazed some of them do as well as they do," said Paterno. "I did not think they could make an impact (athletically) that quickly. But there's no question they can play - and play well."

And because they can play well there is not likely to be the sort of groundswell for reform that ought to take place. Survival academically instead of success seems to be the key, although Jerry Clairborne argues otherwise.

"Academics depends on individual effort," he said. "It depends on individual motivation as much as anything I can think of. The ones who want it will get it. I don't think kids lose that much time now that they wouldn't lose by simply practicing and playing a few games as freshmen."

At Kentucky in the mid-40s, Clairborne played varsity football as a freshman "and really didn't think anything about it. There was no problem."

There were sound reasons for the NCAA changing that rule; there were no reasons beyond money for the NCAA changing its mind and following freshmen again to compete in the alleged major sports.

"No, I really can't think of anything other than economics," one NCAA official admitted.

The NCAA is a collection of educators, or is supposed to be. Yet when a significant number of schools were losing a significant amount of money academics suddenly became even less significat than usual.

Freshmen became eligible beginning with the '72 football season; almost immediately they began running and tackling, rebounding and sinking the 15-foot postage-stamp jumper more consistently than anyone could imagine.

How freshmen grades compared with grades of freshmen athletes under less athletic pressure in prior years nobody bothered to determine - and still have not at most schools. The athletes' playing well meant an alteration in the "numbers game."

That is the number of scholarships a school may give. And the colleges realized their most important savings in football. Once the numbers were unlimited, with Bear and Barry recruiting upwards of 50 football players a year.

In 1973, the NCAA, sensing fishermen could play at a level that still cause Roone Arledge to reach deep into petty cash at ABC each year, decided to limit the factories to 95 scholarships over a four-year period and no more than 30 in one year.

If freshmen could not play, it would cause an increase of at least 15 scholarships over the four-year period, most coaches agree. The numbers game in basketball would no be affected so dramatically.

Still, the colleges to be working harder than ever with their large and nimble scholars. The American College Testing Program in Iowa City reported that a study of graduation rates showed that 15 per cent more football players earned degrees than nonathletes.

Penn State's graduation rate during Paterno's first 10 years at State was 94 per cent. Yet Paterno still feels strongly that freshmen should not play varsity football.

It's a struggle for kids to keep everything in perspective," he said. "And tough for the coaches."

One of the realities of collegiate factory life is that very few football and basketball players become pros. Yet they are encouraged to dream toward that end as freshmen rather than establish an academic foothold that would be more useful.

"But kids get taken advantage of so often," said a parent, Virginia Dantley, whose son, Adrian, played at Notre Dame as a freshman, "that they shouldn't be denied what they want most to do - play ball."

Another reality, in football much more than basketball, is that the athletic hero in high school often suddenly finds other larger and stronger players in college. He frets at broken dreams and occassional broken promises - and his studies suffer.

And most schools were adding another football and basketball game to their schedules almost the very year they were making freshmen eligible.

"My view is that kids shouldn't play varsity basketball until their sophomore year," said Phelps. "And they shouldn't play freshman ball until their second semester. But who listens? Even the Ivies just recently passed a rule allowing freshmen to play basketball. They were forced into it - to compete (for players).

"There have been no studies about all this. And 10 years from now what will we have? Maybe the won-lost record will be fine, but we may be much worse as educators. And who can name the starters from the first of the great UCLA teams - the '64 national camps?"