By CHRIS POWELL MANCHESTER, Conn. Having led the University of Connecticut men's basketball team to an improbable national championship this week, point guard Shabazz Napier was defiant. "This is what happens when you ban us," Napier growled, referring to the National Collegiate Athletic Association's refusal to let the team participate in last year's tournament because of academic deficiencies. It's great for UConn fans that Napier and the other players who stayed with the team may have taken it personally, but they had not been the target of the ban; the university itself had been, for taking advantage of NCAA standards that were weak to begin with. Indeed, the academics of the two major college sports -- basketball and football -- are increasingly "academic" themselves. The whole starting lineup of the team the UConn men defeated for the championship, the University of Kentucky Wildcats, is expected to quit school shortly to enter the National Basketball Association draft, and all five are mere freshmen. Many of the best college basketball and football players give interviews signifying that they are challenged to assemble a simple grammatical sentence. They're not in college for the book learning but to earn a chance to get recruited for the professional leagues. Even the most NCAA-compliant colleges structure the curriculums of their top athletes to go easy on their minds and still surround them with tutors. For many of those who actually complete four years, the most that can be expected is a degree in sociology. This doesn't mean that the college players don't work. Most may work far harder than most other students. It's just not academic work but rather physical and character work resulting from enormous discipline -- and for many it may prove more valuable than anything they could have learned in class. That may be the lesson of the UConn men's basketball program under Coach Jim Calhoun and now Kevin Ollie. Few coaches graduated more players to professional and personal success than Calhoun did, whether or not they left UConn with a degree. Are college athletes being cheated -- cheated out of education or the money they help their colleges earn? If they are cheated out of education, it is a choice they made before they got to college, for which they bear responsibility. If sports beckon them too much, it is a mistake originating at home and in high school. As for being cheated out of money, there now is talk of unionizing college athletes as if they were college employees. This will bump up against the NCAA's tight restrictions on how players can be compensated -- restrictions that increasingly seem meant not to protect players against the taint and temptations of professionalization but rather to reserve all sports revenue for NCAA-member colleges themselves. For the colleges that are most successful in the most lucrative sports, the concept of the student-athlete is increasingly a myth. Maybe it gives the public some assurance about ideals in higher education, but no more so than it serves higher education's economic objectives. So why bother trying to sustain the myth? Why not acknowledge that college basketball and football are the minor leagues for the pros and let young men and women play in them without regard to their academic standing -- even without being students? An age restriction on players might accomplish as much as the pretense of academic restrictions. That pretense is getting old. It was old in 1932 when Groucho Marx portrayed a college president in "Horse Feathers" and scolded the resentful faculty: "This college is a failure. The trouble is we're neglecting football for education." If the alternative to football and basketball is going to remain mere sociology, Groucho was right. Chris Powell is managing editor of the Journal Inquirer, in Manchester, Conn.