The people who would reform intercollegiate sports have been tackled in their own end zone. That is one of the apparent conclusions after the ill-fated attempt by a group of college presidents to begin overhauling a system that illegally lures many athletes to enroll in school with money and other benefits, and then exempts them from normal academic standards, once there. The reform issue was one of the most publicized in the history of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), which met in convention here Jan. 9-11.
The delegates argued longer over a proposal to create a ''board of presidents ,'' which unilaterally could have voided permissive rules and set tough new ones in place, than over any other issue that has ever come before an NCAA convention. The proposed 44-member panel, which would have been selected by the presidents themselves, was intended to deal specifically with the academic standards and financial stability of NCAA schools. Its actions could have been vetoed only by a two-thirds vote at the following year's NCAA convention.
Although the board would have had greater authority than the NCAA convention itself, as Harvard president Derek Bok put it, any other action that fell short of addressing these concerns would ''not be taken seriously by the outside world.''
In the end, however, the delegates killed that proposal and approved instead a weaker one that sets up a commission with advisory and review powers, which campus presidents essentially had already. The commission will be subservient to the convention. It can place legislation on the convention agenda but cannot enact it.
Even before the vote was taken, the proposed board was clearly headed for defeat. A flurry of 11th-hour amendments couldn't save it. Secure in the belief that they had the numbers to beat it back, many hostile delegates booed an attempt to force a roll-call vote that would have placed them on the record. Some later rose to praise the presidents for their interest in NCAA governance.
The first nominating forms for membership on the new commission were scheduled to go into the mail this week. NCAA officials say the group could be fully formed by as early as March and that it will receive whatever funds and staff support are necessary to accomplish its work. Few observers doubt that the panel will mount a vigorous attack on whatever agenda topics it sets for itself. Ironically, it will have the power to designate roll-call votes at future conventions.
''I think a highly significant structure has been put in place that will have an immediate as well as long-range impact,'' reflected NCAA executive director Walter Byers. ''I think the commission has the nation's spotlight focused on it. (The commissioners) are expected to come forward with recommendations in areas in which ills are perceived . . . . So I believe that, when the commission does come forward with its thoughts, they're going to have the (necessary) background behind them. Many of the reform proposals that come to the floor of the convention do not have the necessary facts buttressing them.''
But, says James Frank, commissioner of the Southwestern Athletic Conference and a former NCAA officer, ''I don't see that the face of intercollegiate athletics is going to be changed by this commission. I question whether we need a commission at all. Problems must be solved at the institutional level, at the local level. If there is a school with a problem, the president must solve that problem at home.''
In fact, one of the most effective tactics by opponents of the board was to turn its proponents' own argument against them. Those presidents who pushed for passage of Proposition 35 - mandating the original proposal - claimed they were mostly too busy providing leadership on other fronts to supervise athletic programs.
Richard Gilman, president of Occidental College in Los Angeles, said more of his colleagues would have come to Dallas to participate in the debate but for two other conventions this month that they deemed at least as important as the NCAA's: the Association of American Colleges in San Francisco and the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Washington.
That cut no ice, however, with such anti-Proposition 35 forces as Shippens-burg (Pa.) University president Anthony Ceddia and with Charley Scott, associate vice-president for academic affairs at the University of Alabama.
''The fact of the matter is,'' said Dr. Ceddia, ''it's the presidents' responsibility to make time to meet with their athletic directors and faculty representatives.''
''I am accustomed,'' drawled Dr. Scott, ''to my president being responsible for the total university - not just part of it.''
Still, Stephen Horn, president of California State University at Long Beach and one of the proponents of Proposition 35, insists that the new commission ''legitimizes whatever the campus executives do from now on within the NCAA.''
Such a monster has collegiate athletics become, he adds, that reform can no longer be achieved ''without the collaboration of the presidents of other institutions.''