"Nobody knows how deep" a scandal over agents signing college football players early could go, Atlantic Coast Conferrence Commissioner Robert C. James said yesterday.

Michael Lance Trope of Los Angeles, an agent who has acknowledged signing college players prematurely recently was reported by Sports Illustrated magazine as saying he had to do it to compete with other agents. Trope said he repeatedly encountered assistant coaches at colleges who were steering players to other agents for a finder's fee.

Trope said he had sued 14 National Football League draftees, among them Maryland running back Steve Atkins, and three lawyer-agents over alleged breaches of contracts.

James said yesterday it was unlikely that the colleges involved - among them the University of Maryland - would be penalized. He was not as optimistic for those schools that failed to have athletes sign a form before last season saying they had not signed to play professionally or accepted money from a professional organization or an agent.

"If an agent and a youngster (athlete ) stonewall it, we're in a difficult enforcing situation," explained Tom Hansen, the NCAA's assistant executive director. "The NCAA can do nothing, unless the university did not try to ascertain, say, where an athlete suddenly seems to have gotten a lot of money or is seen driving a new car off the parking lot.

"The NCAA has no recourse as far as individuals (players) are concerned. He is usually a senior with no eligibility left. He's gone. He's a professional," Hansen added.

James said, "If the college did not know an individual was in violation, it would be unfair to penalize it. It may have been deceived by a player. If the school knows it is guilty, the NCCA cannot levy financial penalties but it can use sufficient force. The ACC can levy financial penalties if there is cause."

The magazine article reported Trope as saying he loaned money to 34 collegians he represented in the NFL draft. Included was former Terrapin Atkins, second-round selection by the Green Bay Packers.

The agent said they signed "offer sheets" that bound them to him. Trope said Atkins signed, then left him and engaged attorney Richard Bennett of Washington . Trope is suing both for breaching a contract.

Atkins was quoted as saying he signed as "offer sheet" and accepted loans from a representative of Trope.

But yesterday, Carl James, athletic director at Maryland, said he talked to Atkins a week ago. James quoted Atkins as saying he had not signed an agreement with Trope, was not being sued by him, and that the loan was from "a fellow Steve thought was his friend; a friendly loan. Evidenlty most of the money in the loan was with no strings attached. Evidently there is no document and that's why Trope is not pursuing the matter. We at Maryland are satisfied. Steve's a nice young man. Whether Trope has any proff (of his allegations) I don't know."

Commissioner James added, "I personally hope it (all) comes to trial.

"If he (Trope) has a legitimate case, let it go (let it all come out). If 30 or 40 coaches are dealing in this, let's find out who they are or a black cloud will hang over the others . . . whatever it takes to put it on the table.

"Unitl we can convince the athletes this is wrong, we can't stop it. It't a conscience matter. The player is not seeking advice because he hears that 'everybody is doing it.' The player's amateur status is the absolute kingpin of college athletics."

James said his office received some calls last summer from conference teams about a man contacting athletes; not just the star of a team but any senior.

"After four years in college," he said, "I can't understand why a student athlete needs someone like this - an agent, just someone to act in his behalf. It's unreasonable. I do think it is important to have legal advice.

"I would hope the court would ask a youngster if anyone in the college's administration knew about any violations."

He cited a constitutional provision of the NCCA which says of the athlete, "He shall annually, prior to participating in intercollegiate competition during the academic year, sign a statement . . . in which he submits information related to his eligibility, recruitment, financial aid, and amateur status."

Another source says the athlete has to sign an NCAA form "saying he has carefully reviewed it and understands a student athlete shall no longer be eligible if, 1, he has ever taken pay or been promised the payment of money or benefit of any kind for participation in this sport by a professional team, league, agency, agent, or other individual; 2, if he has ever signed a contract or agreement of any kind with (anyone) pertaining to this sport."

Hansen said, "We offically are not in the position of accepting as many (premature) signings as reported, so far. We always have lots of illegal recruiting rumors and others. We intend to take a close look; we will be pursuing them. If they are found to be as widespread as the story suggests, we will have to adopt new legislation."