It's like a river. It slows, but never stops.

The datelines vary. In February of 1951, it was New York City. Then, as the length of the scandal's grimy reach was revealed, college towns like Lexington, Ky., and Peoria, Ill., got their fair share of abuse. In 1961, there was New York again, in the middle of a scandal that touched 50 players in 27 schools, fixing games in 22 states. In 1981, it was Boston, where a Boston College player, Rick Kuhn, was sentenced to spend 10 years in prison for his part in a conspiracy to manipulate the score in six BC games during the 1978-79 season. And now, on the eve of the Final Four -- college basketball's showcase event -- there is New Orleans, where three Tulane University players have been accused of point shaving in two games this season.

Ironically, one of the games that the players -- John Williams, David Dominque and Bobby Thompson -- stand accused of fixing was the Feb. 20 game against Memphis State, a Final Four team. Ironically, this year the Final Four is being held in Lexington.

According to the Associated Press report, Harry Connick, the Orleans Parish district attorney, says it is possible that other players are involved; Connick says cocaine -- not money -- was the apparent motivating factor.

Gamblers fix games to eliminate the gamble and get rich quick. They have to pay the players off with something. So for all intents and purposes, cocaine is money.

Easy money.

Here we go again.

In 1982, when he sentenced Kuhn, Judge Henry Bramwell defended the severity of the term, saying, "A strong argument can be offered that a substantial term of incarceration imposed on this defendant will be recalled in the future by another college athlete who may be tempted to compromise his performance."

If the Tulane charges are true, Bramwell's "strong argument" collapses.

If the charges are true, Williams, in particular, would have sold himself for chump change. After averaging 18 points and 7.9 rebounds per game, the 6-10 senior was projected as a late first-round draft pick in this year's NBA draft.

If the charges are true, can anyone truly be surprised?

Gambling on sports events is epidemic. Of the major team sports, basketball is the easiest to fix. The basic theory advanced as to why the NBA hasn't had a similar scandal yet centers on the league's average salary: $300,000. A player, it's assumed, would have to be crazy to risk that.

But the college game is repeatedly scandalized, and for relative pittance; payoffs in the BC case were said to be no more than $1,000 and $2,000 per game. It seems reasonable to suspect that college players might feel exploited, since they're not paid at all, and their schools are backing up trucks to collect the revenues from television contracts, to say nothing of the $708,000 jackpot that accompanies making the Final Four. Scholarship athletes often come from meager economic backgrounds; they might not have money for transportation home, or for clothing, to say nothing of casual, spending money, and NCAA rules prohibit the scholarship athlete from holding a job during the school year.

Athletes aren't blind.

They see their schools making millions off them; the Big East's showing in this month's NCAA tournament has earned it almost $3 million.

They see their coaches making $100,000 and up in sneaker deals alone.

Why should anyone be surprised if they consider the easy money?

"I don't know if we can ever stop it," Digger Phelps, the Notre Dame coach, said yesterday, "because the temptation is always going to be there. Gambling's a fact of society. Let's not be naive. Cocaine? We're never going to wipe out cocaine. You do your best to educate kids to the ills of it." Phelps paused. When he spoke again, it was with chagrin: "I'd have thought that education was the way to go. But obviously Rick Kuhn being in jail for 10 years had no effect . . . You hope an athlete looks long range. John Williams is going to be a pro. If he did this, he just blew his whole career."

Jim Valvano, coach at North Carolina State, said yesterday, "I used to be one of those guys who said the fixes were part of basketball history; they wouldn't happen today, they couldn't happen today. Then, BC happened, and it was out of the scrapbooks and onto the front pages. Now, to have this happen again tells me that what Digger says is inescapable: gambling is with us; welcome to reality." Valvano sighed. He was clearly disturbed. "You know what this does?" he asked. "This makes our other problems -- academic standing, recruiting -- pale in comparison. This is the one that breaks the back of our game. If we're dumping games, if our games aren't even really games, why are we playing them?" He let the question hang for a while, then said, "This news makes me very sad."

Why, Valvano was asked, would players do this?

"Are you kidding me? For the money."

It is Phelps' position that college athletes from revenue producing sports should be paid, because they deserve remuneration for what the schools realize from their efforts. "I believe in a stipend," he said. "You take $4 million right off the top of the $32 million the NCAA is getting from TV for the tournament. You split that up so that every Division I scholarship basketball player gets $1,000 a year; football could get its money by setting up its national championship and selling the TV rights."

Pay college athletes? Then why not pay physics majors?

"They're not show business; we are," he said. "We're entertainment. We're big bucks. We've got to give the players a piece of this action. It's time we paid these kids. We're professionals. Admit it. So what? There's nothing wrong with it."

But Valvano suggests the stipend won't stop the larger problem. "Okay, we give them money," he concedes. "Is that going to stop the kid who wants more? Does greed really have a boundary? Is corruption satiable?"

Both men make valid points. Who's to say that a token amount of money would mean anything at all? But it is, I think, long past due, and a reasonable first step to take.