Dallas — Even the longest journeys begin with a single step. With that thought in mind , an activist band of college presidents believes it is now on the way down a twisting path to controlling an abuse- and scandal-ridden collegiate sports program.
The campus executives did not get the running start they had hoped for when they came to Dallas this week to challenge that program's most powerful governing body, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). But without their effort to gain the power to set policy for intercollegiate sports, they note, there might have been no change in the status quo at all.
Lack of action, they say, would have allowed coaches, athletic directors, and others involved in sports - often under intense pressure to win - to continue to stretch or break the rules, with relatively mild penalties awaiting them if caught.
Many college presidents, with the responsibility to manage a host of other functions on campus, maintain that they have neither the time nor the expertise to get involved in athletic matters. Indeed, most presidents decline to attend NCAA conventions, the agenda of which is usually 90 percent or more devoted to technical athletic matters. Fewer than 180 were preregistered for the Dallas meetings, and even fewer are believed to have come.
The activists, members of the committee on sports of the American Council on Education (ACE), placed before the delegates to the NCAA meeting here a complex proposal to create a 44-member board of presidents that would have significant authority over the academic standards and financial integrity of member schools.
Although the ACE activists never issued a list of targets that the board might feel impelled to aim at, these were understood to include the length of seasons, illegal recruiting of athletes, freshman eligibility, and insuring that athletes actually work toward degrees. The board's actions could only be overridden by a two-thirds majority vote at the following year's NCAA convention.
The proposal had impressive support. The heads of such famous football powers as the University of Miami (the consensus national champion for 1983), Nebraska, Georgia, UCLA, and Michigan lined up behind it. So did Derek Bok, president of Harvard University. The Exxon and Hewlett foundations helped fund the effort.
E. Bruce Heilman, president of the University of Richmond and another of the proponents, called the proposal ''the conscience of the NCAA.''
But the proposal also had powerful enemies in the 720-member body, and it managed to win only 48 percent of the 641 votes cast. The delegates even stifled an attempt to force them to submit to a role-call vote on the issue. The NCAA's records show that the highest previous number of votes cast on any issue at one of its conventions was 579.
Says Arliss Roaden, president of Tennessee Technological University: ''Yes, indeed, there are serious problems in intercollegiate athletics. But they are on campus and not in the NCAA.''
Adds the Rev. J. Donald Monan, president of Boston College: ''If we were too negligent before, I fear we will become more so'' in entrusting such a board to keep watch on athletics. ''We must choose (a course) that will encourage all presidents to increase rather than diminish'' their involvement in athletics.
In a spirit of compromise, however, the delegates voted overwhelmingly to establish a similarly sized commission of college presidents that will have advisory and review powers but cannot set policy. The commission will be elected by the chief administrators themselves.
The activists professed their satisfaction - for now - with the developments.
''This is clearly a win,'' says Stephen Horn, president of Long Beach State in California, ''there wouldn't have been a thing without (our proposal).'' ACE president, J. W. Peltason, says: ''We've made progress. It's encouraging, I think. But I don't think the last word has been heard on athletic governance.''
Added Dr. Bok of Harvard: ''We won't know for several years what the response to this is. Although we can't predict the outcome, I think we can say the prospects for reform have been measurably improved.''
It will be several months, at a minimum, before the new commission is formed and begins work. The next scheduled NCAA convention is next January in Nashville , Tenn.