According to a study commissioned by and reported to the NCAA, if and when Proposition 48 -- the NCAA's new academic eligibility guideline -- goes into effect in 1986, its impact on freshmen participation in Division I-A college athletic programs could be devastating.

Data compiled indicated that under the rules of Proposition 48 -- incoming freshmen eligible for varsity competition only if they have maintained a C average through a high school core curriculum of 11 academic subjects, and if their scores on standardized tests met a specified minimum -- 70 percent of those black male athletes and 34 percent of those white male athletes who were athletically eligible as freshmen in 1977 would not be eligible if Proposition 48 was in effect.

In response to this projected decimation of freshman-eligibles, many voices have been raised in opposition to Proposition 48. The thrust of their criticism has been the standardized tests, which are argued to be sociologically and culturally biased against students from lower socio-economic groups.

I think the core curriculum portion should stay.

I agree the standardized test portion should go.

But why treat the gushing wound of academic unpreparedness with a Band-Aid?

Freshmen shouldn't be allowed to play in big-time varsity college programs.


They should be given a year's grace period to adjust to college life before being thrown into the crucible of big-time college athletics.

Bring back the freshman teams. Let freshmen athletes spend the same amount of time on their special interest -- a valid extracurricular activity -- as other freshmen. Ten hours a week seems reasonable. But separate them from the varsity in name and in deed. Give them a limited game and practice schedule. For at least this one year, let them be students first, athletes second. Maybe they won't study. But give them the chance.

Give them one year to be part of the general student population. Then, give them four full years of eligibility. If they choose to graduate early and not to use all four, fine. Give them the option. They're still children. Nurture them. It's not what they are, it's what they could be. Granted, a lot of kids go to college just to play ball. But wouldn't it be nice to keep them there for some reason other than their vertical leap?

Give them a reason to stay in school beyond the training table.

Every freshman -- not just the athletes -- faces significant social and academic adjustments going from high school to college. Routinely, a freshman is living away from home for the first time; anyone who has gone through that knows how stressful it can be. A college academic curriculum is much more taxing than a high school academic curriculum; anyone who has pulled an all-nighter to study organic chemistry knows how stressful it can be.

Add to that how much higher the level of athletic competition is in college compared to high school and you can see that the cards are stacked against the freshman athlete, no matter how academically gifted he or she may be.

By allowing freshmen to play varsity sports -- many freshmen will have played varsity football games before they have attended a single class -- university administrators have chosen revenue over academics, a precarious position for an academic institution.

Notre Dame's basketball coach, Digger Phelps, thought it wrong in 1972 when the NCAA sanctioned varsity competition for freshmen. "And it's still wrong," he said yesterday. Phelps believes that the reason athletes choose certain schools to attend is simple and shameful. "They only want to start as a freshman and score 30 points a game," he says. "They want to pick up where they left off in high school." He is appalled by their priorities. "They're allowing schools to exploit them athletically, when they really should be exploiting the schools academically."

It is significant that on the day The Washington Post ran a story about the NCAA-commissioned study on Proposition 48, it also ran a concurrent story about the academic grounding of Georgetown basketball player Michael Graham, who was a key player on that school's 1984 NCAA champion team as a freshman. Graham was academically deficient in high school and was admitted to Georgetown only after passing courses in a summer program. In that story, John Thompson, Georgetown's coach, said of Graham: "There's no doubt in my mind that Michael possesses the intelligence to survive here at Georgetown, but he lacks the maturity and self-discipline to make the commitment at this time . . . He has only identified part of his educational experience. He's got to realize the totality of his responsibility. He's just got to stay off the streets of Washington and stay on the campus of Georgetown."

It is to Georgetown's credit that Graham will retain his scholarship while he attempts to get his house in order. But what better proof could one ask for when challenging the wisdom of freshman eligibility?

There are freshmen capable of combining academic excellence with athletic excellence. But my guess is that for each of them, there are 10, 20 -- as many as 100 -- who can't. Many high school athletes are borderline students to begin with, because they spent so much time pursuing points, not grades. It is the responsibility of the high schools to insist that such a priority is reversed, and the responsibility of the colleges to reinforce that reversal.

"I would do away with freshman eligibility," said Dr. John Taylor, a member of the NCAA special committee that recommended changing Proposition 48, and a former football player at San Jose State. "The arguments for keeping it are solely economic. Are the priorities programs or students? This is an education issue. What is the commitment the university has to the student?"

I know that many athletes go to college in hope of becoming a professional athlete, despite the lengthy odds against them. I know they stay primarily to sharpen athletic skills, not to become doctors or lawyers or accountants. But one year off -- the first year -- won't cost them a shred of their skills, and it might give them new ones.

I'm not against colleges making money from big-time athletics. (I'm not even against college athletes making money from big-time athletics; they draw the crowds, they ought to share in the profits.) But as long as colleges wave the term "student-athlete" like a flag, they should be made to salute it.