More than 50 percent of the nation's collegiate varsity athletes fail to earn a college degree, even after four or five years in school, according to Richard Lapchick, a former basketball player at St. John's University in New York. Dr. Lapchick now is a college professor.
In his new position as director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University, he offers practical help to college and professional athletes who didn't get degrees to enable them to finish their schooling.
Dr. Lapchick already has sought the cooperation of officers of the professional leagues, club owners, and players' associations in devising an off-season degree program for such players.
The center, a division of the School of Arts and Sciences, is emphasizing:
* Scholastic achievement. It will offer a degree program for students specializing in sport as a social institution. It will design a curriculum to help athletes - collegians with expired eligibility and pros without diplomas - earn college degrees.
* Sports research. The center will focus on the study of various aspects of sport and social issues, utilizing faculties and facilities of other universities as well as Northeastern.
* Outreach activity. The center will publish two sports journals, sponsor a series of lectures, seminars, and community forums, and present awards to outstanding sports journalists in both the print and electronic media.
Dr. Lapchick also has a special interest in racism in sports and the possible large-scale exploitation of women, as female sports become more commercial. Sports are considered a strong democratic force in America, he says, but he often hears the question, ''Where do the athletes go after they have completed their eligibility?''
''How do I convince a starry-eyed teen-ager to complete his education after he hears ... about someone like Olympic track star Carl Lewis?'' he asks. As an ''amateur'' track man in college, Lewis acquired a home, a fancy car, and about Olympics in Los Angeles. A biography, ''Carl!'' by John Devaney, has been rushed into print since the Olympics in July.
Impressionable teen-agers believe '' 'I can do it, too, if I work as hard as Carl Lewis,' '' Dr. Lapchick says. He offers his father's advice to gullible athletes: Get an education, and be prepared for life after sports.
''My mission at Northeastern is truly the legacy of my father,'' he explains, referring to Joe Lapchick, who became a sports legend as center with the original professional Celtics basketball team 50 years ago. The elder Lapchick later coached basketball teams at St. John's University and the New York Knickerbockers professional team. ''Dad was called a 'nigger lover' because he gave black players a chance to play in college,'' Dr. Lapchick continues. ''He signed center Nat (Sweetwater) Clifton to play for the Knicks, helping to desegregate the NBA in 1950,'' three years after infielder Jackie Robinson broke the color line in baseball.
''Many of the publicized ills of sports - exploitation, drugs, and miseducation - can be corrected, if athletes are required to do the same classroom work as other students,'' Dr. Lapchick maintains. ''But society should not blame the athlete wholly for his plight.''
The ''fall of the star'' begins ''the moment coaches discover a student is above average in athletic talent,'' Dr. Lapchick says. A promising athlete ''as early as junior high spends more time in practice than in the classroom. The time has come to appreciate athletes as people, not meat and muscle.''