Who is at fault when a Stan Lamb flunks out of college?

If Lamb, the American University basketball star, had been an anonymous student flunking out, no one would have cared. Students flunk out by the hundreds without having newspapers write stories about them and run their pictures.

But when the academic casualty is scoring 24 points a game, his dismissal from school becomes a reason to ask what is going on.

That's because Stan Lamb and thousands of college athletes are being paid to attend school. Not paid enough, certainly. College sports is big-time entertainment today, generating far more money and prestige for universities than is ever returned to the athletes. So when American U. gave Stan Lamb a scholarship, they made him part of the entertainment business.

Only, the colleges don't like to admit they are in show business. They want to preserve the fiction that their athletes are all Frank Merriwells and Jack Armstrongs going to physics class between games. The news media help sustain the lie. A CBS report on Penn State's football program showed players studying textbooks at their lockers. Now, really, guys.

The ultimate proof that big-time colleges are in the business of selling tickets to basketball games is their recruiting of athletes with little or no chance of ever fulfilling the academic requirements for a college degree.

The Stan Lamb case seems a classic and melancholy illustration of a school's exploitation of an athlete.

For a black youngster from a Bronx ghetto, basketball often is the only escape. Colleges all over America recruit players from the New York playgrounds. Maybe the best player ever, Connie Hawkins, was a legend on the playgrounds before he enrolled at -- are you ready for this culture shock? -- Iowa.

If Stan Lamb used basketball as a way out, good for him. And if American U. used Lamb to sell tickets to basketball games, that's good, too. They should be helping each other.

As his part of the bargain, Lamb did an outstanding job; he became a star, one of the top 25 scorers in the country, a player who might make some All-America lists and maybe make the pros someday.

American U., though, did not do right by Lamb. Nothing in his background suggested he was a college scholar. If American U. wanted Lamb to throw in a few baskets for Dear Old Alma Mater, the school was obligated to (at least) get Lamb to class every day. Get him a tutor. Arrange study sessions. To do anything less than that is to practice shameless exploitation.

American U.'s first-year coach, Gary Williams, does, in fact, admit failing Stan Lamb. Though he knew Lamb had a history of academic trouble and was in danger of flunking out, the coach still did not shepherd him to class. They talked about the trouble, and that was it. Lamb was confident he would pull out of it, the coach said. Beyond that, Williams said he did nothing, mostly because he was preoccupied with getting settled in his new job.

By Williams' accounting, Lamb is an intelligent, goal-oriented man whose head was turned by the sudden attention he gained as a star after starting only six games last season. The coach also said, "Stan was recruited under certain conditions... and obviously he thought he could do the academic work here."

That seems to be a suggestion that Lamb, who was recruited before Williams took over, was caught in the switches when American U. put in stricter academic rules. Those rules apparently require everyone, even star basketball players, to go to class.

Lamb flunked two classes and was given "incompletes" in two others. His cumulative gradepoint average for five semesters thus fell under 2.0 and, in accordance with university rules, he was dropped from school.

"This won't happen again," said Williams, the coach.

Maybe not at American U., but it will happen somewhere.