Are the NCAA's new academic requirements working against the best interests of many men athletes while increasing graduation rates for women?

Nobody expected that result when Proposition 48 went into effect in 1986, and nobody saw any evidence when men and women showed slight gains during the first two phase-in years.But for the class that entered in 1988, the third year of Proposition 48, graduation rates for all men basketball players as well as black Division I-A football players declined.

Deepening the mystery is the fact that 1988 was the first year the Prop 48 requirements were at full strength, meaning those student-athletes should have been even better equipped for college work.

NCAA officials admit they're stumped.

"Trying to find causality from the data would be pure speculation," said Ursula Walsh, NCAA director of research. "All we can do is wait to see if there's a trend."

White male basketball players suffered the steepest decline, falling from a 57 percent graduation rate for the 1987 class to 50 percent for those who began in 1988. The rate for black male basketball players fell from 39 percent for the 1987 group to 37 percent for those who entered in 1988.

"It's fascinating, but it's fascinating in a negative kind of way," said Dr. James Frank, commissioner of the predominantly black Southwestern Athletic Conference.

Under Prop 48, which went into effect in 1986, freshmen athletes had to meet minimum academic standards to play, practice or even accept financial aid in their first year. The standardized ACT and SAT tests have been the most controversial components of the rule, blasted by many educators as racially and culturally biased.

"Admissions counselors across the country will tell you that a higher grade-point average and good letters of recommendation are better predictors of college success than standardized test scores," said Richard Lapchick, director of Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society.

The upward trend continued for women athletes and was up slightly for white Division I-A football players. But the sharp decline among male basketball players may be cause for concern.

"We won't know what it means until we can study more data and see if there is a trend. But I think people are going to be concerned when they see this," said Marian Washington, Kansas women's basketball coach and a board member of the Black Coaches Association.

"It should alert people that there is reason to take a closer look at what we're doing with all our athletes."

The NCAA research is based on athletes who graduate within six years of enrolling, so the performance of the 1989 freshmen can't be calculated for another year.

Graduation rates for Division I-A football players rose from 55 percent for the freshman class of 1987 to 56 percent for the class that began in 1988. The figures for black players fell from 44 percent to 42 percent, but the rate for white players went from 63 to 64 percent.

Nobody among the students who entered college in 1988 made bigger strides than black women, whose 58 percent graduation rate was 5 points better than the preceding class and 17 above the overall rate for black women.

The graduation rate for white female athletes showed a smaller increase, from 69 percent to 71 percent. White female basketball players went from 67 to 72 percent.

In 1986 and 1987, incoming freshmen could compensate for lower scores on standardized entrance tests with higher grade-point averages, or vice versa. A combined score as low as 660 on the SAT or 13 on the ACT was acceptable if the athlete had a 2.2 average in college preparatory courses such as math, English and science.

But starting in 1988, more rigid rules applied, requiring that freshmen have a 2.0 average and at least a 700 SAT score or 15 ACT score to be eligible.

"Why would they be on the rise and then all of a sudden go down?" said Frank, who was NCAA president when the Prop 48 debate began in 1983 and was never a Prop 48 fan. "You can't analyze one year's data and reach any definite conclusions."

Athletes in general, thanks to the women who entered schools in 1988, maintained a slim lead - 58 percent to 57 percent - over the graduation rate for college students in general.