IN FEW OTHER activities today is it more meaningless to speak of sportsmanlike (or unsportsmanlike) conduct than in most professional sports. This is true especially of the Olympic Games, although the competitors are supposed to be amateurs. Only in a few sports such as the biathlon, a combination of cross-country skiing and shooting, is there today much sportsmanship.

More people today watch sports than ever before. Television has changed their role in our lives, as it has changed so much else, and so it has changed the character of sports. When we say that sports have become big business, as indeed they have, we are speaking of how we as spectators have changed them. It is through television, more than through our ticket money at the gates, that we feed in the cash.

But although the most obvious, this is not the only influence. Television alters what is relayed through its cameras. Few would have believed, not long ago, that golf could be televised. There are only the long stretches of the course, and even longer stretches of time, while each of the players hits his ball perhaps 70 times. The balls themselves are so small that they are barely visible.

But of course it is not golf that appears on our television sets. The cameras jump from player to player, from action to action, and all the tedium is eliminated. Golf is a game in which nothing happens for most of the time. Televised golf is a showbiz production in which something is always happening. Television may one day bring us fishing as a sport; but we can be sure that a fish will always be biting.

Some people, of course, continue to pretend that nothing has changed. One expected the fuddy-duddies at Wimbledon to get on their high horse and chastise John McEnroe for his occasional obstreperousness. Wimbledon may strangely, rather like the British monarchy, retain its mystery. But it is now just another stop on the professional tennis circuit, and its toffs try only to maintain the fiction that it is still gentlemanly.

One also expected the British press to jump on McEnroe, as the bullies in "Tom Brown's Schooldays" did on grocers' boys.In their eyes, after all, who is McEnroe? A street kid from some borough in New York. He also keeps winning, 200 years after York-town. But then the United States Lawn Tennis Association also fined him, and the crowd at the finals at Flushing Meadow was despicable in its hostility.

It wasn't rooting for Borg; it was rooting against McEnroe. It was not yawping at any play or conduct of McEnroe there, but at conduct 3,000 miles away which had been magnified by television. It was not he but Vitas Gerulaitis who at Flushing Meadow was heard to yell a six-letter obscenity at the umpire. Yet it was not Gerulaitis but he who was booed -- for taking his time to tie his shoe-laces.

Unduly taking one's time is a traditional form of gamesmanship. The most legendary figure in the history of cricket, Dr. W. G. Grace, was an Eminent Victorian if ever there was one. A gentleman, egad, and a scholar. As a bowler, he would stop in the middle of his run-up to stare at the sky. The batsman followed his eyes, of course, and stared straight into the sun. Grace then unleashed the ball.

No one said, "That's not cricket." The crowd did not boo him, it loved him for it. Only this summer, a team in one of the softball leagues in Washington found itself losing. What did it do? It called for a supply of beer, and got the opposing team drunk, until it resigned even while ahead. "Have another beer," the home team pressed, with such generosity. It wasn't the game, but the visiting team, that was washed out.

I can find little evidence that George Herman Ruth was either a Babe or a gentleman when he had his bat in his hand. A gentleman would not, after all, hit too many home runs. Neither would he serve too many aces. Both the home run and the ace have become more professional. Both in their very nature are unsporting, allowing the opponent little chance of riposte.

Anyone who really enjoys watching tennis would boo an ace. Except as a freak, it destroys the game. Except as exceptions, homers are not baseball. As baseball ought to be loading the bases, so tennis ought to be sustained volleys and rallies. That is the sport in the games.

By showing with his amazing clouts how home runs pleased the crowds, Babe Ruth was directly responsible for the introduction of the faster ball. It is the same with aces. The ace today does not come out of a hole. It comes partly from the modern racket and the modern ball, as the home rune now comes partly from the tighter and stouter yarn. But the real agents in this are the modern crowds.

Crowds today like sudden death. They might as well be at a boxing match, waiting for the knockout and the bloodied nose.To some extent, this always have been true. Let someone kill, and the crowd is happy. The Romans knew this when they fed Christians to the lions. The Spaniards still know this in their vile diversion of bullfighting. The crowd wants a head, even in front of its television sets.

The origins of sport and their fascination for us have never been fully explained. But the common factor in them all is that they are an excuse for legitimized savagery. When the need to attract a large crowd is added --the professionalism and the commercialism -- then the balance between the sportsmanship and the savagery is upset. It is no longer sportsmen as such who reach the top in most sports.

From the age of 10, if not earlier, they are weaned to win. They do not come leaping on to the court or field to knock a ball about.

But it is not only the sportsmen who have become too professionalized; it is the spectators in the crowd or at home who are professionalized. Crowds used to be largely fans. Some of them became experts in the game. Others just went to see the home team, or simply for the occasion, an outing when they could eat junk food, not even caring much if their team won, as the steadfast loyalists of the Redskins deathlessly prove.

The element common to all true crowds is that nothing much has to happen. They're there; that's enough. The once timeless cricket matches in England, sometimes extending to nine days; the long afternoons in a ballpark as the bases are loaded in the 12th inning; the extended sets in tennis before the tiebreaker was introduced: these all gave an excuse just to be there a little longer.

Grace as he stared at the sun, Ruth in his last Series quelling the crowd as he pointed to the spot in centerfield over which he would drive the next ball, McEnroe tying his shoe-laces: all of these are as much action if one is actually there as the ball being hit. But to the spectator in front of his television, they are invitations only to switch the channel.

Television likes sports to be played in a reasonably definite time span. But even this is not really the main point. Time is not the same in our sitting rooms as it is in the ballpark; it is not the same when it is filtered through the cameras as it is to our naked eyes. what is perfectly acceptable in the theater is by no means certain to be as acceptable in our homes.

Television therefore is always giving us something other than what it purports to be giving us, not out of intent or malice, but simply because its cameras do not work as cameras do in photography or even the movies. We go to the movies -- or the ballpark -- to be occupied. But television has to keep us occupied when there is so much else at home which could occupy us.

Television puts the players, literally, in "a different ballgame." But it does the same to the spectators. Even those who go to the actual games go expecting them to be like the games given to them on television, and yelp when they are not, until the reactions of the crowd become little more than a mimicking of the instant opinions of the commentators. That is what one senses in a crowd's reaction to McEnroe. What he does is simply not done on television, even though it is traditionally a part of gamesmanship.

We talk of the fuss over the Olympics and now the South African rugby team as if sports were being politicized. That is only the result; it is not the cause. Sports have become not sports. The politicizing would not occur if there were not now, through television, a vast audience not primarily interested in the sport as such. The performances demanded from sportsmen now are not those which bear more than a tenuous connection to what is sporting. That does not make them worthless, and certainly not less intriguing, but they do not belong to sports.

There was a headline in a paper the other day, after Coe's and Ovett's two amazing runs, which asked what not long ago would have been an absurd question: "A Three-Minute Mile?" It is quite extraordinary to what limits the human mind and body can now be pushed. Record-breaking of this kind is a legitimate ambition. But it has nothing to do with sports.

It belongs more to experiments in behavior psychology or biogenetics or whatever. It is now true that at universities all over the world the sportsmen are in the hands of scientists. One even sometimes feels that campus athletics should now be brought under the departments of engineering. Events in which record-breaking is a primary goal should merely be held under the auspices of the Academy of Sciences.

The Olympics might similarly be more peaceful if they were held under the auspices of the United Nations. It was at Flushing Meadow, after all, that the U.N. had its first headquarters. Debates in the General Assembly do not actually end in war, which can hardly now be said of the four-yearly fracas of the Olympics. Then we could begin to talk of sport only when it really is sport.

But the record-breaking and the cutthroat international competition are part of the hype which serves the professionalization and the commercialism through the medium of television. The politicizing is only the next stage.

The reason why I say of McEnroe, as I watch him, "That's my kind of boy," is that the machine jerks out of control, for all to see. In what may be the last sinful pun of my life, I remarked to someone as we watched the finals at Wimbledon, that McEnroe's uptight Swedish opponent obviously was not Bjorn Free. McEnroe has no doubt been through all the fancy business which now makes a champion.But he then comes faulty to play.

Like any kid on the sidewalk, like a boy in a tantrum picking up his ball and taking it home, like my brother when he cheated at Monopoly, like every sonofabitch who grows a forked tail and uses a forked tongue when he plays a game, McEnroe fights through the professionalism and the science and even past the cameras, and gives us a temper in the game. He plays not only wonderfully but excitingly well. Fewer and fewer are like him.