A citizen commission that spent 18 months studying college athletics has come to a disturbing conclusion: Money and prestige have so corrupted the system that the only answer may be to junk it and start over.

College presidents must regain control of their school's athletic departments and run them instead of the other way around, the Knight Foundation Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics has concluded.The 22-member commission, funded by a private foundation, includes such educational luminaries as former university presidents Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh of Notre Dame and William C. Friday of North Carolina.

The report concludes the public is losing confidence in college-level sports programs. The perception is that athletes are recruited to perform for their school, not get an education. Athletes and coaches are held to different standards of performance, both educationally and personally.

With college graduate athletes testifying before congressional committees that not only did they not attend class for four years but they can neither read nor write, the report's conclusions don't come as any surprise.

The Knight report urges college presidents to regain control of their athletic programs and specifically tells them to take a long, hard look at their relationship with commercial television.

What the report doesn't directly address is how college athletics has come to such a condition. The answer to that is money.

A successful football or basketball team is one that is in demand, both by local boosters and national television. Demand translates into money, from ticket sales, contributions by proud alumni and television broadcasting revenue.

Colleges and universities are chronically short of money. Any athletic department that turns profits back to its institution instead of requiring a subsidy is looked upon favorably by school administrations.

Favorable treatment too often becomes a hands-off policy. The president of the university doesn't really want to know what the head coach did to recruit that potential star; he just wants to see the alumni, the regents and the big donors happily cheering a winning team on.

It is the fans, however, who bear the ultimate responsibility for the blurring of the line between college and professional athletics.

We've gone beyond just supporting a team to demanding that they be winners, whatever the cost. There would be no lucrative multimillion dollar television contracts if there was no demand by viewers, by the fans.

The commission is correct. Until the athletic system is redrawn and the emphasis is put on academics, nothing will change. And unless fans can gain a more balanced perspective, that won't happen.