New Orleans — Kevin J. Ross is a 6-foot, 9-inch ''gentle giant.'' He grew up in the black ghettos of Kansas City, Mo., where the college recruiters used to knock on his door in an unending stream. He attended Creighton University in Iowa for four years on an athletic scholarship, only to discover that he was 36 classroom hours short of graduation.
''They exploited me!'' he says of Creighton University.
The dramatic story of Kevin Ross - a young man who played four years of college basketball, failed to earn a college degree, and finally ended up enrolling in a ghetto prep school to retool his education - has stirred nationwide controversy over how college athletes are educated .
''The black athlete is superhero to young blacks, a role model for success,'' says Harry O. Edwards, a bearded, lean, 6-foot, 10-inch sociology professor at the University of California at Berkeley, a specialist in sports sociology.
''He bursts gloriously across television screens and newspaper headlines as he slam dunks a basketball or thunders across the goal line, dragging frustrated tacklers with him - then spikes the football with macho dramatic gestures as throngs cheer in adulation. This is not the real world,'' Dr. Edwards says.
Pressure from alumni boosters for schools to produce winning football teams combine with the financial incentives of big-time college sports to make the solutions offered to the problem highly controversial. For instance, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the nation's most powerful college-sports organization, has formulated new academic requirements for varsity athletes. They set minimum standards for collegiate-admission tests and grade-point averages.
Black colleges immediately objected. Most of them provide remedial, noncredit programs to help students qualify for collegiate study. They say the NCAA proposals would disrupt their athletic programs by disqualifying many of their athletes. Representatives of these schools add that they were not included in the NCAA's planning process. They seek revisions that offer more flexibility.
Various social service and educational organizations - including the National Urban League, which held its 73rd National Conference in New Orleans in August, are studying the issue and proposing standards.
As for Kevin Ross, he says he is attacking the issue ''in my own way.'' A retread in the classroom, no sensation on the basketball court, and no marketable skills for the job market, Mr. Ross is a hero to many educators, black colleges, and black youths one year after leaving college empty-handed. Why?
He is a college ''jock'' (sports jargon for athlete) who dared admit that he needed to ''catch up in my education.'' Tests showed he could read only at a second-grade, second-month level after four years of college.
''I was illiterate,'' he explains. ''I couldn't read, write, add, or subtract. How could I seriously think about getting a college degree?''
Ross says he had four options for launching his post-college career:
1. Return to Creighton. ''That was out. I couldn't read and write.''
2. Join the police force. ''I couldn't fill out a simple report.''
3. Attend vocational school. ''I wasn't good enough in my books for that.''
4. Enroll in Chicago's West Side Prep School, guided by well-known educator Marva Collins. ''I took that route. My mother and I were flown to Chicago (at Creighton's expense). She was shocked. Her son planned to attend school with all those little kids? How could I?''
Ross told his story to 3,000 delegates at a National Urban League workshop entitled ''The Black Athlete: On and Off the Playing Field.''
Through this panel and workshops involving college presidents, school superintendents, coaches, athletes, and teachers, the National Urban League suggested some policies for schools with student athletes, including:
* Varsity athletes should achieve certain levels of competency before they are promoted to the next grade level of study.
* Athletes should receive no special privileges, although they devote much extra time to practice and participation in sports. Athletes should meet their academic requirements at every school level as well as in college.
* Educators should prepare the student athlete to achieve in the world outside of sports.
* The burden of developing classroom standards for athletes should be placed on college academic officials and not on a sports regulatory body such as the NCAA.