As they gather in Dallas today, the 1,300 delegates to the 78th annual convention of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) ought to be focusing on one thing: the letter ''C.''
They're scheduled to vote on an issue of central importance: the leverage of college and university presidents in NCAA affairs. They are voting, in other words, on the relationship between athletics and academics in American higher education - on the meaning of ''Collegiate,'' on the ''C'' in their organization's name.
Europeans must find it all rather droll. They have universities, and they have amateur athletic clubs; and the twain rarely meet. Americans roll them into one, producing teaching and research organizations with football teams. In earlier eras, that seemed to work. But another ingredient has been added - money. Institutionally, it comes through television, promising financing that some universities find irresistible. Individually, it comes through what Harvard president Derek Bok calls ''the lure of the siren song,'' promising pro contracts to successful college athletes.
The result is a sad and much-told tale: university teams scrambling for ever-brighter stars and settling for ever-dimmer academic prospects; the press heavy with accounts of forged transcripts, unearned academic credits, and student-athletes from modest backgrounds driving flashy cars; and the salient principle of sportsmanship - fair play - roundly abused.
Such abuse, argues Bok amid the restrained elegance of his Harvard office, frequently exploits the student-athletes. Brought to college (though presumably not to Harvard) solely to play ball, they emerge with neither a degree nor an education - and sometimes (as has happened recently) without even being able to read. Nor do most of them have a future in sports: Only about 1 percent of collegiate players ever make it in pro ball.
How are the nation's universities responding? They tend, says Bok, either to ''de-emphasize athletics altogether'' or to ''emphasize them to an extent that is hard to keep compatible with the academic emphasis of the institution.''
Valuing both athletics and academics, he longs for better balance. So, as chairman of a committee within the American Council on Education (ACE), he submitted a proposal (Proposition 35) to this year's NCAA convention. It would set up within the NCAA a 44-member elected board of college and university presidents. The board would have rulemaking authority (subject to veto by two-thirds of the NCAA members) in areas concerning ''the academic standards, financial integrity, and reputation of member institutions.''
But those three categories are, as NCAA spokesman James Shaffer objects, broad enough to let a small group of presidents decide nearly anything - undermining what he calls the ''one-institution, one-vote concept'' of his organization. So the NCAA council has offered Proposition 36, which would establish a similar-looking presidents' commission but give it only advisory power.
The NCAA, in effect, is saying to the presidents: ''We'll go on governing as we always have, but we'll listen to your advice.'' The ACE - backed by an impressive list of other academic organizations and individual presidents - is countering with strong criticism. ''You may be gaining yardage on purely athletic matters,'' it is telling the NCAA, ''but you've dropped the ball on academic standards, and we're taking the field.''
Will the presidents win? Either proposition requires a two-thirds vote at Dallas to pass. That could happen: Last year two tough rules (limiting freshman eligibility and requiring steady academic progress of players) garnered that margin. If the ACE proposition passes, the nation may be poised to dump, or at least modify, a badly flawed system in which semi-pro athletes try to find time to go to class - and to return to one in which students play ball.
Even if it fails, the presidents' warning has carried unmistakable meaning: A nation already upset over the academic standards of its secondary schools also wants to defend the meaning of the word ''Collegiate.''