Athletic directors at NCAA Division I schools oppose by about 3 to 1 a proposal that basketball attendance figures be used to determine whether some members remain in the top division, according to a poll conducted by The Washington Post.

Of 213 of the 277 Division I athletic directors or their representatives responding, 117 were against the proposal, 15 were leaning toward voting against it, 37 said they would vote for it, nine leaned in favor of voting for it and 35 were undecided. The phone survey was conducted Dec. 15-17.

The proposal is to be voted on at the NCAA convention in two weeks at San Diego. It includes a provision that schools that do not field a Division I football team must average 3,500 per home game or 110,000 annually home and away to retain their status.

As many as 63 -- but more likely 40 to 45 -- schools could lose their opportunity to qualify for the NCAA basketball tournament and possibly lose their Division I status. Washington-area universities that do not meet the proposed requirements are American, George Washington and George Mason. If passed, the rule would become effective for the 1984-85 season.

"It's as bad as segregation was in 1954," said Ed Billings of Houston Baptist, a relatively new Division I member that would not meet the proposed basketball attendance requirement.

The issue has polarized the big-time football powers, most of which are state-supported schools, and those that do not play Division I football -- mainly smaller, private urban schools. The football powers say they are striving for a division of schools with similar size, budget and problems. The basketball-only schools and some of the second-tier football schools say the object is greed and power.

Of the three constituencies in the division, the major football powers (I-A) were 5 to 1 in favor, but 51 of their 96 members either were undecided or did not respond; the schools that do not play either Division I-A or I-AA football were unanimously against it, and what are considered the swing votes, those schools that play football in Division I-AA, opposed it almost 5 to 1.

"We're in a system where we draw 100,000 for a game and have one vote and a smaller school draws 1,000 and has the same. It's got to change," said Michigan's Don Canham.

"We need less people in Division I. You should have a Division I-AA in basketball as well as we do in football," said Homer Rice of the Atlantic Coast Conference's Georgia Tech. "It's part of a continuing process that we've been working on for 10-15 years. People within the division should have the same interests. Schools should have both football and basketball."

Robert Broadhead, Louisiana State: "Heck, 3,500 doesn't even pay for the laundry bill. Their programs are costing more than their revenue is able to produce. They shouldn't be competing against bigger schools."

The real issue, some say, isn't competition on the court, but in determining NCAA policy. The proposal that includes basketball attendance as a criterion is one of several that would give the football powers--most of which belong to the College Football Association -- more power in running the NCAA.

Other proposals would restructure the executive committee and the NCAA Council, the organization's policy-making arm, with weight for the football powers. Such a move is seen as a way of assuring that the CFA schools remain under the umbrella of the NCAA.

"We should not be forced to have our destiny detailed by other smaller schools," said Bob Devaney of Nebraska. "Every time, you're outvoted by smaller schools that don't have an athletic program anything like ours. I'm not against smaller schools. They have problems, but large schools do, too. And ours are bigger problems."

"Is athletics more beneficial just because of the revenues it generates? I don't think so," said Bob Karnes of Drake, a I-AA school. "No school should have more of a say than another school simply because of size and money."

Some athletic directors of second-tier football schools and basketball schools say they fear the basketball attendance proposal is the first in a series of maneuvers to reduce the coalition of schools that has voted down a number of proposals sought by the major football schools.

Dave Coffey of Tennessee Tech of the I-AA Ohio Valley Conference: "It's consistent with what I personally perceive as the NCAA's attempt to divide and conquer. I don't think the big schools should control everything. I'd hate to have them want more than 90 percent of the TV (football) money they're getting now. The motivator is money. You shouldn't buy your way through. That's part of the problem in intercollegiate athletics today."

Don Davis of I-AA West Texas State: "There is a certain group of self-serving individual schools who are trying to manipulate or control the NCAA so they can continue to recruit and dominate the sports scene. I don't think this is the scope or nature of college athletics."

Or as Kelvin White of I-AA Texas Southern put it: "The people that got, get more, and people that don't, get less. It's not fair."

John Semanik, Drexel, which would lose its Division I status: "People have lost sight of why kids are at colleges and universities. It all stems from big television money . . . Big-time attitude must be controlled. Because you're in the top 20 doesn't mean you're a better school."

Most of the reasons given by Division I-AA athletic directors for voting against the proposal included principle; a fear of their schools being next to go in a divide-and-conquer strategy; the feeling that matters should be settled one-school, one-vote regardless of the money spent, and, especially in the West, scheduling problems that would be created since a Division I basketball team must play 24 of its 28 games against other Division I members.

Smaller private colleges and universities, schools in urban areas that do not play Division I football, Catholic schools and predominantly black colleges and universities formed a broad-based opposition to the proposal.

The proposal needs 154 votes to pass, unless another proposal is passed earlier at the convention, stripping the 29 allied conferences in Division I of their votes on NCAA legislation. Then only 139 votes are needed.

The basketball attendance requirement is part of proposal No. 71 on the NCAA's Official Notice for the convention. This proposal sets criteria for Division I classification, such as playing a minimum of eight sports and giving at least 50 percent of the NCAA limit on grants-in-aid (scholarships). Schools that meet those requirements but do not reach minimum stadium size and attendance requirements for Division I-A or I-AA football, or do not play football, must average 3,500 per home game or 110,000 annually home and away for four basketball seasons.

"We qualify, but we oppose any measure to eliminate schools," said Bill Bradshaw of La Salle of the East Coast Conference. "It's only the beginning. The CFA is relentless to pare down to what they'd call a homogeneous grouping of schools. This proposal is only a compromise . . . How can you on one hand say it's amateur athletics, but on the other hand, you must increase attendance and grants in aid?

"You don't want to print what I really think," said Dan Fitzgerald of Gonzaga University. "We've been Division I for 40 years. What bothers me is that this has been clouded by economic issues--the CFA, the cable TV money. Their rhetoric is just nonsense, especially that homogeneous business. I hate to think that Dean Smith stays up nights worrying about Gonzaga basketball."

Neale Stoner of I-A Illinois said: "We're all concerned about the small schools. I come from Cal State-Fullerton. We want to see them stay healthy, but the more serious issue is the television money. (If the NCAA loses the appeal of its lawsuit with Oklahoma and Georgia over who owns television rights, each school would be in position of negotiating its own contract.)

"We can't afford to play the Ball States or the Northern Illinoises any more. We have to use television to promote and support higher education. Television is probably creating an upper layer of schools."

Five private schools in Division I-A favored the proposal. Typical of comment from both the state-supported schools and the five private schools was Baylor's Bill Minify:

"We have colleges and universities who have put great amounts of money into their programs. Therefore we should be grouped together."

Carl Maddox of I-A Mississippi State said some athletic directors may be directed by university officials on how to vote. "I don't like any kind of attendance criteria," he said, "but I'll vote in favor unless my president directs me to do otherwise, because I haven't come up with a better solution."

Ever since the NCAA began its three-divisional setup in the early 1970s, the major football powers have been outvoted by a coalition of the smaller football and basketball-only schools. It was in this context that the CFA was formed, the football-playing members of the Division were split into I-A and I-AA and the television money has increased so that two CFA members (Georgia and Oklahoma) are suing the NCAA. They contend it has violated federal antitrust laws by not allowing schools to sell television rights independently.

Said Richard Perry, Southern California: "Historically, in the 1940s, there was no divisional structure and some small schools felt left out and started the NAIA. Now the larger schools with broadly based major programs must have their problems addressed."

But Tulane's Hindman Wall said his school, which plays I-A football, would vote against the proposal. He says two classifications for Division I football are fine, because of high costs of competing nationally. But "basketball is a different situation. Not so many dollars or big arenas (are involved) and it's less expensive to compete nationally. It's a different animal.

Frank Broyles of Arkansas, another football power: "We feel that schools of like problems should be in the same legislative arena and divisions. These schools that have commitments--stadiums and basketball arenas to pay off--should be in the same legislative arena."

The basketball schools meeting the criteria voted with those who do not.

"It's not fair to established schools with basketball tradition," said Bob Brooks of Oral Roberts. "If a school wants a good band, who's to say it needs 30 trumpet players? The proposal stinks and it's rotten."

Currently, six teams in the Associated Press' top 20 football teams are on NCAA probation. A number of athletic directors cited the pressures to win, meet costs and football attendance requirements as a reason for recruiting violations and other cheating, including some that put a school's academic integrity in question.

Said William Retzheim of Illinois-Chicago Circle: "The NCAA was formed to move professionalism out of athletics . . . This will lead to (more) cheating. In order to obtain 3,500 fans per game, you've got to have a winning product. In order to have a winning product, you must have blue-chip athletes. In order to have blue-chip athletes, a lot of universities will take short cuts in the recruiting process."

Joseph McMullen of Towson State said the proposal is contrary to the purposes of the NCAA, adding, "The NCAA is for amateurs."

Said Bob Staak of Xavier: "This is not what higher education is about."