College presidents must take firm control of their athletic programs because they are so ridden with academic and financial irregularities the problem "can no longer be swept under the rug," a private commission said today.

"At their worst, big-time college athletics appear to have lost their bearings," reported the 22-member Knight Foundation Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics."We sense that public concern about abuse is growing. The public appears ready to believe that many institutions achieve their athletic goals not through honest effort, but through equivocation, not by hard work and sacrifice, but by hook and crook."

The report, culminating an 18-month study, was being discussed today at a news conference by former university presidents Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh of Notre Dame and William C. Friday of North Carolina - who co-chaired the panel.

"We have to get across to the athletes themselves that only one out of 100 of them is ever going to get into professional sports," Hesburgh said on ABC's "Good Morning America." He said it must be made clear to athletes that "if you don't make progress toward a degree every semester, you're not going to play. You've got to be serious about that. If you don't make it you don't play."

Appearing on the same program, Friday said he did not want to be an ungrateful guest but suggested that "commercial television" has had a huge impact on the commercialization of college athletics and said one of the things the commission recommends is that "presidents sit down and look at their relationship with commercial television."

The commission found that academic and financial problems "are so deep-rooted and long-standing they must be understood to be systemic. They can no longer be swept under the rug or kept under control by tinkering around the edges. Because these problems are so widespread, nothing short of a new structure holds much promise for restoring intercollegiate athletics to their proper place in the university."

The 47-page report's recommendations are based on the central theme that college presidents must be in firm control of their athletic departments.

"The president cannot be a figurehead whose leadership applies elsewhere in the university but not in the athletics department," the commission said.

It also said:

- "The fundamental premise must be that athletes are students as well. .. Their academic performance should be measured by the same criteria applied to other students."

- "Particular vigilance is required to assure that central administrators set the terms under which the university engages in the larger economic environment surrounding big-time college sports."

- "The academic and financial integrity of college athletics is in such low repute that authentication by an outside agency is essential."

The Knight Foundation, which financed the study, is one of the nation's largest foundations. It is wholly separate from and independent of Knight-Ridder, Inc..