WHAT IS GOING on in this town?

Think about it seriously for a moment: when we talk about Redskins Fever, we are talking about an entire city -- a world capital -- collectively going bananas over a bunch of corporate professionals in gladiator helmets, many of whom make no secret of their mercinary intentions or their desire to leave this city for someplace like Kansas at their first opportunity.

Mind you, we are not just talking about the usual sports crazies -- about adolescents of all ages with elevated testosterone levels. We're talking about everyone from the proverbial Bethesda housewife to the sensitive, Alan Alda-types right up to and including Ralph Nader.

We are talking about an estimated 30,000 people sparing no expense to fly to the other end of the continent to watch a football game. We are talking about Treasury Secretary Donald Regan, Budget Director David Stockman and White House economic adviser Martin Feldstein briefing reporters on the 1984 budget in front of a large banner reading "Love Them Hogs"

We are talking about more than half a million people, standing in the drenching rain, grinding the city to a halt, to watch a rag-tag collection of Metrobuses pass by.

What on earth is going on here?

Seriously.

What is this thing we call Redskins Fever?

In these pages last Sunday, Joe Theismann, the Redskins' quarterback who holds a degree in sociology, offered one explanation. In a near-depression, he suggested, people search for "an escape from the harsh realities that things are rotten."

While that notion has a certain surface plausibility, the Washington area simply is not Youngstown, Ohio. Montgomery County is not down to its last Volvo. Furthermore, the Theismann theory suggests that if the times were better, the response would be more muted.

"This could have happened in the highest affluence," argues Michael Novak, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of "The Joy of Sports."

"I think football tears some masks away. It lets us see some realities of our longing for perfection on the one hand, and the irrationality of life on the other. There is something deeper than entertainment going on. Entertainment is a distraction. There is something humanly much more satisfying and profoundly touched in sports."

Some have suggested that sports in America fills a need for pagan religious experiences. This idea was generally laughed off the field after it led to a raft of semi-wry sports columnists drawing parallels between cheerleaders and Vestal Virgins, between quarterback sacks and human sacrifice.

"I would not have made the case that you can take the idea of sports as a religion seriously," says John Loy, a sports sociologist at the University of Illinois, adding, quickly: "Until last summer.

"(Pioneering 19th-century French sociologist Emile) Durkheim did a study that showed that there was a higher rate of suicide among less cohesive groups -- males have higher rates than women; the unmarried higher than the married -- and in another book he tried to show how religion provided a cohesive bond. Well, what I did was take those two ideas, and figure that suicide ought to be a function of ceremonial occasions."

Loy studied two religious celebrations -- Christmas and Easter; two "civil religious" celebrations -- Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July; and two sports celebrations -- the last game of the World Series and the Super Bowl. Sure enough, suicide dropped for all six occasions.

During the Super Bowl, as at Christmas, enough social cohesion is produced that "Life is made worth living for a very short period of time," Loy concludes. "At least you put off your death. In our modern world, life is so fragmented. There are few things left providing some notion of cohesion."

"People are social animals," says UCLA sociologist Janet Lever, whose book "Soccer Madness" is being published this month. "The tribal instinct, the need to belong to something larger than themselves, is apparent. In advanced societies, sports teams are perfect recipients for human loyalty. There are very few equals. We need things that we can care about together.

"A city by definition is full of strangers -- people of different races, nationalities, religions, ethnicities, social statuses -- who have to put up with each other. We all need to think that we belong to an integrated society. And sport is really one of the few institutions that hold people of a metropolis together.

"There is a real special joy sharing emotions with strangers. The enthusiastic support of the Redskins is a personal declaration that 'I belong here.' It's even more important for all the transients, all the people who were not born here. It's a public affirmation of community. 'We are a tribe. We are together.' "

Yeah, but, come on, you may say. What is an educated, reserved, State Department analyst doing making a fool out of himself, screaming himself hoarse in the pouring rain?

"Sports is the last bastion of hokey," says Lever. "We are a little cynical and jaded in our post-Watergate era. How many places do you know where sophisticated people let themselves go and do hokey things like sing silly songs and do the cheers? There really aren't that many places where we are willing to be that uncool."

"One of the rules of professional class life is civility and soft voices and courtesy of the educated professional," says Novak. "But, boy, you hear a lot of behind-the-scenes talk of 'I took his b - - - - off'; 'We really laid him out this time.'

"Football celebrates irrationality. In upper- class and highly educated life, you get so few places to express it. You want everything to be reasonable, to go by rules. And life really isn't that way..When they fire you, they don't really do it in an ugly way anymore. They're very clever about it. So they deprive you even of the rage."

"Your pride is heightened in a competitive situation," Lever adds. "That's where being proud of your zoo or the Kennedy Center falls apart (as a rallying point for civic pride. In sports,) you see how you are ranked relative to others. That's where pride is really heightened. Such that the little old ladies who aren't even fans -- who don't read the sports page -- are drawn in by the time you get to something as big as a Super Bowl finale. It becomes a media event that overshadows all other media events, and a collective spirit is created such that they, too, are proud. They do join in the collective spirit and public affirmation of community. Where else do we have it in a modern world?"

"This town is such a press town," Novak agrees. "The press is such a monitor of failure and incompetence and cussedness that there is no ideal left standing. Politicians are so used to having their motives analyzed, often wrongly. You just look at headlines almost any day: You get somebody knocking somebody. The opportunity to express the perfection that we all work for is just a great release. This is a bad-news town. Good news is so terrific.

"Another thing about a political town is that politics, by its nature, is devisive. Politics only arises because we have different opinions. To find one thing -- one thing -- in which we all have a good opinion is just such a relief. I think that's more important than the notion of racial peace or class peace. And then back to business tomorrow."

But how can anybody get excited about a team so without place loyalty that the first order of post-Super Bowl business was for management to figure out if it could cough up enough money to get the players to come back?

Well, says John Rooney -- head of the geography department at Oklahoma State and author of "The Recruiting Game" -- hiring ringers to fill out a team that gives a sense of place to one's town is simply a time-honored American tradition.

"There is a natural h Luman territorial instinct," he says, "and a sports team comes to represent a person's place." As early as the 1850s, "frontier boosterism characterized development of the West," says Rooney. "People tried to attract other settlers to their new place, frequently utilizing baseball. They would attract attention to their new place by recruiting and paying men to represent them, playing a much bigger town, and beating hell out of them."

To understand this kind of recruiting, he claims, you can't get past certain intangibles like "honor." Texas and Louisiana are the two states in which high school football most approaches a mania. "Do you remember the scene in 'The Last Picture Show'?" Rooney asks. "In Texas a small town's prestige -- its identification -- is so strongly on the line, that there are men sitting around in a coffee shop the Monday after a game ridiculing kids on the team who had not upheld their honor."

Even in Washington, which fancies itself more sophisticated than, say, Waco, "honor" has its place, says Rooney. "If there's something wrong with the football team, then maybe there's something wrong with the town -- maybe something wrong with us. And it's up to us to make sure that things go right." That hypothesis would go a long way toward explaining the decible level at RFK all season long, and the number of fans who clearly felt it their very duty to jam airliners heading toward Pasadena 10 days ago.

AEI's Novak is even ready to take it beyond honor and into metaphysics. "The athlete is pitting himself against fate," he says. "No matter how good you are, you can have a bad day and lose. Things had to go your way. One of the most touching moments was when the television stayed on the Redskins after the Dallas game when they knelt and said the 'Our Father.' Can you imagine a bunch of journalists getting out a good issue and kneeling down to say an 'Our Father?' Athletes play so close to feeling these tides of fortune in them or abandoning them -- they know the difference."

Fine, but what does that have to do with the buttoned-down life of an attorney or lobbyist?

"Football exhibits the life of corporate teamwork," says Novak. "In most jobs, we depend on one another. The football team mirrors that aspect of the American experience. The degree of office politics and imcompetence and waste depresses you. So when you see something done perfectly -- according to the ideal of teamwork -- it is just very satisfying.

"This team exhibits that better than most because it doesn't have the great stars. Everybody has to do their job perfectly just to go three yards. You have an exquisitely pure ideal of what we're all trying to do every day. People describe us as a nation of individualists. We're not. Everybody works with and for others. Teamwork is the highest ideal of a capitalist society. When you see a bunch of guys doing something as near to perfection as can be done for three hours, it just makes you feel it's all worthwhile.

"This is a peculiar town. Football used to be the working-class game, the six-pack game. But football became a metaphor for a highly organized life and especially, therefore, the professional classes, which are organizing classes, communicating classes. Football is a perfect mirror for what they go through all day long. Whether you're launching a public relations campaign or running a political campaign, you spend all your time trying to create team work. Professional reliance on others. A lot of it is daily crud work, and every once in a while you throw the long bomb and it's just so satisfying. So it's no surprise to me that in this town, which is probably the most professional-class town in the country, football is a marvelous expression of daily life, and just so satisfying, much more so than baseball or basketball.

Okay, one last mind-boggling aspect of Redskins fever. What were those fans in Pasadena doing when, with the Super Bowl on ice in the fourth quarter, they started chanting "We want Da Lllas!" Of all the inexplicable aspects of this irrational disease, what do we have against Dallas?

"Sports in America has taken on a role beyond rational explanation," Oklahoma State's Rooney acknowledges. But he speculates that Washington's enmity toward the Dallas Cowboys may be more culturally deep-seated than would seem plausible at first glance.

"The Dallas Cowboys are the highest form of organizational machine," says Rooney. "They have transferred the technocratic value structure to sport."

But why on earth would the nation's most bureaucratic town react so vitriolically to that?

"They," Rooney only half-kids, "have lost their soul."