Athletic excellence usually has led to great rewards, at the very least a meaningful education and a college degree, and for the very best, a lucrative professional career.

And yet, some athletes are finding participation in varsity sports--football and basketball in particular--incompatible with the academic commitments necessary for an education. Consider, for example, the cases of Tom Vines, John (Tree) Adams and Curtis Jones.

For Vines of Northeast Washington, it was a Catch-22 situation.

After three years on a basketball scholarship at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, Vines decided he could not graduate unless he dropped basketball.

"I had a basketball scholarship, but it was contingent on my academic performance," said Vines, a reserve center. "If I was going to get out of school with any opportunities in this world, I had to give up basketball. I felt I would put my academic performance and achievement in jeopardy if I continued to play. In my opinion academics should always hold priority over athletics."

The university didn't see it that way. In January, Vines' scholarship was revoked.

"Mr. Vines signed a contract in which he was given a grant for his ability to play basketball and for his contribution to the basketball team," said E. Richard Watts Jr., the director of athletics at UMBC. "In our opinion he voluntarily withdrew from that contract."

Adams, a former football player at Bethesda's Walt Whitman High School and West Virginia University, says he cheated his way through college, cheated on college entrance examinations and cheated in high school while dreaming of a career in professional football.

Adams, a standout defensive tackle, left college without a degree once his eligibility had expired, but his professional career foundered after tryouts with the St. Louis Cardinals, the New York Jets and the Washington Redskins.

He's now serving a one-year sentence in a federal prison in Lewisburg, Pa., after pleading guilty to charges of trafficking in cocaine.

Adams declined to be interviewed in prison by The Washington Post. But before his incarceration he told the Charleston Gazette that he began cheating on his course work while in the 10th grade at Walt Whitman, that girl friends wrote themes for him in college and that he paid friends to give him answers on tests.

Jones, a former high school all-America basketball player from Detroit, received a high school diploma and was recruited by the University of Michigan although he is functionally illiterate, according to a $15 million lawsuit filed on his behalf in Michigan.

Jones was unable to pass Michigan entrance examinations, so his coaches persuaded him to enroll at North Idaho Junior College. After two years there, he was promised he could transfer to Michigan, according to the suit.

In junior college, Jones was enrolled in classes with names that "he couldn't even pronounce," according to his lawyer, Jerome Quinn. On one test, said Quinn, Jones was given a book with all the answers, but he was unable to read them and asked another student for help. Soon word spread around the campus that Jones couldn't read, and he was taunted by the other students until he suffered a mental breakdown.

Jones has been in and out of mental institutions for the past 10 years and currently lives with his mother, supported by government disability checks. "He's just a broken-down 33-year-old man," said Quinn. "He lives and relives his moments of glory in high school. He's no longer in touch with reality."

Athletes have always been subjected to conflicting pressures and demands, and some have always harbored unrealistic aspirations.

But over the last two decades the pressures have intensified as escalating television contracts and newer and bigger stadiums have pushed the financial stakes of winning to unprecedented levels. More recently, a deteriorating economy and the severe financial pinch that most colleges and universities face have added to the pressures.

In the National Football League, for example, approximately 65 percent of the players left college without earning a degree. The New York Daily News recently interviewed 21 of last fall's senior all-America college football players, and 15 said they will not graduate this year.

Among the nongraduates were first-round NFL draft picks defensive tackle Kenneth Sims of Texas, linebacker Johnie Cooks of Mississippi State, linebacker Chip Banks of Southern Cal, quarterback Art Schlichter of Ohio State and quarterback Jim McMahon of Brigham Young. Virtually all said their football commitments kept them away from the classroom. In the National Basketball Association, approximately 50 percent of the players left college without degrees, according to the players association.

Increasingly, coaches and athletes are speaking out against such situations. In recent years, advocacy organizations have been formed to protect athletes' rights, and the athletes are more prone to sue when they feel their rights to an education have been ignored.

Says Joe Paterno, football coach at Penn State, "If a kid comes to a university on an athletic scholarship and doesn't get a quality education, then we're a bunch of hypocrites. After all they do for us, filling up the stadiums and the field houses, the least we can do is see to it that 15 to 18 years from now they've got something useful to do with their lives."

But Paterno also says pressure from professional scouts and agents makes it more and more difficult for his players to concentrate on their studies. "I don't want to mention the name, but we had one team who wanted a player to come to a minicamp right in the middle of his final exams.

"If we can't make it possible for a kid to get an education then we should get out of the business of calling them student-athletes. I've got 36 or 37 players in the NFL now and 34 or 35 of them did get degrees. But it's getting tougher all the time."

Maryland Basketball Coach Lefty Driesell says it's in a coach's best interest for his players to earn degrees. "If you're going to be coaching very long, you'd better make sure your players get degrees because word will get around and then no one will come and play for you."

In nine years of coaching at Davidson, Driesell said, only one player failed to earn a degree and "he married a rich girl so it didn't make any difference because he didn't need it." Three of his players at Maryland failed to earn degrees, he said, although several returned to campus after their eligibility expired to earn their degrees.

About 70 percent of Maryland's football players graduate, a higher percentage than the rate for the undergraduate student body in general, according to Athletic Director Dick Dull.

Moreover, noted Dull, it's significantly ahead of comparable schools in the College Football Association, an organization that includes most of the nation's major football powers. A recent survey of 48 member CFA schools found only 48.6 of the athletes who registered as freshmen in 1976 had earned degrees.

Allen Sack, a defensive end on Notre Dame's 1966 national championship football team, says the real tragedy is that so many athletes leave college having acquired only athletic skills that will be all but useless in later life.

"Most of them are good human beings, hard-working, dedicated kids who have great potential and they want an education, but they are being stumped by the system," Sack said. "And the tragic thing is that their potential is being wasted in such a rich environment."

Sack said when he was in college, football consumed so much of his time that he did not develop much enthusiasm for studying until the spring semester of his senior year. "It was wonderful. There was no spring practice. I had time to study and read," Sack said.

From Notre Dame, Sack went on to Penn State where he earned a doctorate in sociology with a specialization in sports. He's currently a sociology professor at the University of New Haven on leave for one year to direct the federally funded Center for Athletes Rights and Education (CARE), an organization formed last year to defend educational interests of athletes.

"As there has been less and less money available, the more and more higher education has been charged with developing its own sources of revenue, and sports has been a marketable commodity," said Carey Goodman, project director for CARE. "So the universities are treating their athletic departments as small businesses whose mission is to raise money for the university."

Last summer Goodman received a $90,000 grant from the Department of Education to launch CARE, and since then he and Sack have been talking with athletes, coaches and administrators to promote the cause of athletes' rights.

Among their major thrusts has been promotion of an athletes' "bill of rights" that would extend scholarships after sports eligibility has expired. It also would provide for remedial courses, tutoring and counseling where necessary and backing for an academic trust fund that would set aside 15 percent of all sports-generated revenue to pay educational expenses of injured athletes and those who fail to earn degrees by the time their eligibility expires.

They have also drawn up a check list for heavily recruited high school athletes. Some of the questions athletes are encouraged to ask college recruiters are: "what percentage of athletes brought in as freshmen in my sport graduate? . . . is it a requirement that I live in an athletic dormitory? . . . will I be able to skip practice to attend necessary classes and labs and still keep my scholarship?"

CARE also has been involved in the James Bozeman case at Florida State. Bozeman quit the basketball team last December, charging a trainer, acting on orders from the coach, had injected his ankle with Novocain and cortisone so that he could play while injured. In February, CARE brought him to New York so he could make his charges at a press conference.

Bozeman, who had been captain of the team, told reporters his main interest in college was getting an education and a degree. He'd seen other athletes get exams with the answers tucked inside, he said, and once a player the coaches no longer wanted was deliberately steered into a difficult course so he would flunk.

Last month a Florida State committee said it found no evidence to substantiate Bozeman's charges, but a statement issued by CARE said the committee and its conclusion were biased in favor of the university.

If the Bozeman case represents an effort to mobilize public opinion in favor of athletes' rights, other athletes are turning to the courts--as Curtis Jones did in Detroit--for protection.

Currently pending against California State University at Los Angeles is a $14 million suit filed by seven black athletes who say the scholarships they thought they were getting were actually loans they were later asked to repay. Moreover, the suit contends, coaches steered them to easy, superficial courses, keeping them from receiving a meaningful education.

"I got there and my course cards were all filled out for me," said Randy Echols, a basketball player who transferred to Cal State in 1974 after two years at the University of Arizona.

"I had a decent grade point average (C) at Arizona and they had me down for things like water polo, archery and the theory of movement," Echols said. "I said, 'I don't want these courses,' and they said, 'Randy, we want you to remain eligible.' Their program was certainly not geared towards a meaningful education. Implicit in the whole deal was that the athlete does not go to classes."

Echols should have graduated from Cal State in 1975, but he did not get his degree in public administration until 1981. After losing his athletic scholarship, he paid his tuition himself. He is the only one of the seven athletes to have earned a degree.

Currently legislative aide to Rep. Mervyn M. Dymally (D-Calif.), Echols is working on a master's degree in speech communication at Howard University. His lawyer, Angela R. Pickett, says she's trying to negotiate an out-of-court settlement of the suit. A spokesman for Cal State said the school would have no comment on the suit.

Last year, in an effort to reduce the number of athletes failing to graduate, the NCAA tightened its eligibility rules to require that athletes make reasonable progress toward a degree to stay eligible. The new regulations require that an athlete complete at least 24 credit hours a year. A normal course load would be 30 hours to graduate in four years.

"I would hope and wish that every recruited athlete who participates in intercollegiate sports would graduate, although maybe that's unrealistic," says James Frank, NCAA president and president of Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo.

"The educational institution, and that means the coaches, the administrators and the faculty, has an obligation to see to it that the student athlete receives a quality education. By the same token, the student has a responsibility to realize that his primary purpose in attending college is to get an education and that extracurricular activities, even athletics, are not the most important thing."

A major difficulty is that the recruiting process fails to prepare many athletes for the pressures and responsibilities of college, according to Arthur Sherrer Jr., a former basketball coach and teacher in Chicago. Six years ago Sherrer formed an organization called Athletes for Better Education, which concentrates its efforts primarily in the area of recruiting.

Backed by corporate and foundation grants, Athletes for Better Education stages summer camps in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. At these camps, coaches and counselors advise athletes on how to prepare for college and deal with high-pressure recruiting.

"We're trying to get at it from a preventive end," said Richard Kosik, a staff member for the organization. "We want them to ask about career opportunities at a school . . . We want them to make sure they understand what's in a scholarship.

"But for some of them it's almost too late. The root of the problem begins in the junior high schools and in the first two years of high school. The kids who are gifted athletes are told, 'We're going to take care of you.' Taking care of them is a code for making it easy."

Jim Ford, an educational researcher for the D.C. public school system, says the type of hero worship accorded some athletes contributes to their own and others' expectations that they can adjust to anything without any difficulty.

"You get kids who are being recruited in junior high school, and the educational institutions are beginning to condition them to believe that they are athletes first, students second and human beings third. By the time they get to be seniors their interest in education is minimal. They already believe they've got the ticket to success. But the odds for making it dwindle very rapidly."

In a number of ways, that was the scenario for Curtis Jones in Detroit. Jones had been in special education classes since the third grade, but by junior high school he was already being recruited by high school coaches, according to his lawyer.

Although Jones was heavily recruited by colleges while a player at Detroit's Northwestern High School, his IQ was between 65 and 73, in no way college material, according to Quinn. The average IQ is 100. Still, he was admitted to North Idaho Junior College, where he stayed for about a year before the breakdown, according to his lawyer.

Tree Adams, who played for West Virginia from 1972-74, says he spent his free time in college working out, hoping to make the pros. In four years, he never wrote a single theme, he said.

After failing to make the pros, he drifted to Florida where he worked as a bouncer at a bar in Fort Lauderdale and began to use drugs extensively. After seeing some friends die of overdoses, he went to a drug rehabilitation center in Wheeling, W. Va.

Although his basketball scholarship was revoked at UMBC, Tom Vines paid his $1,500 tuition himself and will graduate on schedule this spring. To save money he moved out of the dormitory and commuted from Washington his last semester at the University.

Athletic Director Watts said if Vines had been injured, even in his freshman year, his scholarship would have remained in force for four years. Vines, he said, simply failed to live up to an agreement.

Vines is confident he made the right decision. "Someone's got to stand up and say, 'Look, my academics have to come first.' The world is mean and you've got to get your priorities straight. Once your eligibility is used up, they're going to say, 'You're on your own now.' Basketball is just a recreational activity, but it became a job more than it was a game."