The president of the University of Southern California, where normal admissions standards were waived to admit at least 330 academically deficient athletes over the past 10 years, says he believes that higher education may have come to a turning point in its relationship to competitive sports.

"The major spectator sports have taken on an existence and momentum entirely of their own and drifted away from the procedures and academic philosophies of the institutions which spawned them," said James H. Zumberge in a report to the USC community.

"If the present trend is allowed to continue, the potential exists for gradually undermining the integrity and credibility of the educational enterprise as a whole.Therefore, individual institutions, and the intercollegiate athletic system of which they are a part, must explore ways of restoring clear purposes and goals for competitive sports which are consistent with broader educational purposes and societal needs."

In an investigation begun last spring, a USC advisory committee found that since 1970 an average of 33 athletes a year -- most of them football players -- had been admitted by the athletic department although they did not measure up to the normal USC admissions standards. Only a small percentage earned degrees.

"Those admissions were not subject to normal review or veto by the admissions office," said Vance T. Peterson, director of academic relations at USC.

Other sources said Peterson's predecesor, Dr. John Hubbard, allowed the athletic department to enroll students and then "directed the admissions office to keep hands off." Hubbard, currently a history professor at USC, was unavailable for comment.

"It was a system gone awry," said Zumberge, who directed that in the future the admissions office should have the final say on who is or is not admitted to USC.

Peterson said all the athletes in question met the NCAA eligibility requirement of a high-school grade-point average of at least 2.0, but that they failed to meet USC standards. The investigation was sparked by disclosures that 30 athletes had received credit for a speech and communications class that they did not attend.

That incident and other academic and athletic irregularities prompted disciplinary action against USC by the Pacific-10 Conference. USC and four other schools were barred from postseason football competition this season, including the Rose Bowl.

In his report to the USC community, Zumberge listed what he termed five major weaknesses prevalent in college sports:

Actions have not always been guided by institutional and individual integrity. The schools have sometimes taken advantage of the athletes, have failed to help them succeed academically and have then cast them aside when their elibility is finished.

Universities have failed to understand the seriousness of the present situation. The potential exists for a national scandal far less innocent and of significantly larger proportions than a point-shaving scandal in the 1950s.

Universities have failed to understand the significance of changes that have occurred in competitive collegiate sports in the last three decades, including the rise of national television, large professional contracts negotiated by professional agents for college athletes and the glut of gambling on college sports.

Universities have failed to understand the purpose of college sports, including the broad range of advantages inherent in competition, such as bridging generational and racial gaps and bringing people together.

Too often, universities, and especially their presidents, have taken a laissez-faire attitude toward athletics and have failed to exercise proper leadership.