ON THE morning of its showcase event, the National Football League should be embarrassed.

For years, the NFL has squirmed whenever people started counting blacks in coaching and management. There just aren't that many. The few blacks in player personnel were used primarily to scout the small black colleges, ostensibly because they knew the coaches and talked the same language. In other words, they were accepted at that level.

Today when asked why there aren't more blacks in top positions, Commissioner Pete Rozelle and management's answer is the same as it was 10 to 15 years ago: When the qualified man comes along, we'll tell you. Or: You can't expect sweeping changes overnight, but things are getting better.

Professional football has grown into America's number one sport financially and in viewing audience. The NFL has cultivated an ethos of "fair play" and competition in an effort to protect its privilege of self-regulation and to secure immunity from antitrust standards. The motives of men in football are rarely questioned (except by the NFL Players Association) and their actions tend to be rationalized as being in the interest of the "integrity of the game."

Despite the image of sports as a symbol of opportunity, those seeking to better their circumstances through football and other sports can incur great disappointment. Sports has led a few thousand blacks into a better life while substituting a meaningless dream for hundreds of thousands of other blacks and minorities.

The board of representatives of the NFL Players Association, knowing this fact, commissioned Dr. Jamill H. Braddock, II, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, to do a study that would trace back 20 years of NFL hiring practices, on the playing field and in the front office. The study, started in 1980, showed why a black is significantly less likely to be selected for either a head coach or assistant coaching position in the NFL.

At that time, of the 238 assistant coaches in the NFL, there were only 14 blacks on just 12 of the league's 28 teams. The study showed that the NFL picks its coaches from what are considered leadership positions -- the very same positions many black athletes were steered away from. Those positions are quarterback, center, offensive guard, middle linebacker and safety. Quarterback was the toughest to crack because it was felt that a black quarterback might cause problems on the team and that he would affect attendance at the gate and the size of the viewing audience.

No black player, to my knowledge, was ever really given a good shot at playing quarterback until 1970, when James Harris of Grambling was drafted by the Buffalo Bills. A black college quarterback was usually shifted to defensive back or wide receiver.

My own career is a case in point. I played quarterback at the University of Cincinnati in the 1960s. I never got a chance to play the position as a pro. When I was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in 1965, I played quarterback in practice for only three days before the coaches switched me to defensive back. I never played a minute as a quarterback in the NFL. Today there are only two black quarterbacks in the NFL, Warren Moon for Houston and Randall Cunningham for Philadelphia.

The existence and depth of racial prejudice in football can be documented back to the late 1920s, when truly organized professional football began to have fan appeal. During this period there were three black players in the league: Fritz Pollard, a graduate of Brown University who played with Akron; Paul Robeson, the famous singer-actor of Rutgers who played for Akron; and Bobby (Rube) Marshall, a former Minnesota all-America who played for Rock Island.

The fans used to sing "Bye, Bye Blackbird" to the black players and sometimes throw rocks at them. Since those early days, racial prejudice has been fairly quiet, yet there are still no black head coaches and very few black quarterbacks.

Political pressure has produced some small changes. After the NFL Players Association study was made public and Rep. Augustus Hawkins (D-Calif.) held hearings in 1980, the NFL set out to hire a number of black assistant coaches, a few front office personnel made financial contributions to black universities, and the league invited black coaches to training camps.

However, if you talk to some of those newly-hired coaches, they will tell you they have very little input in day-to-day coaching and do not see much opportunity for advancement.

Whenever there is a head coaching position open, you hardly ever hear a black's name being considered. Lionel Taylor, once one of the top offensive coordinators in the game when he coached in Los Angeles a few years ago, can't get a job in the NFL.

The job of offensive or defensive coordinator is the next step to head coach. Willie Wood, former Green Bay Packer, once was considered as the man most likely to have the first opportunity to become a head coach. He can't get a job in the NFL or USFL, even though he was a head coach with Toronto in the Canadian league.

Bobby Mitchell, assistant general manager for the Redskins, and Tank Younger, assistant general manager for the Chargers, have never been considered when a general manager's job became available. You'd think they would at least be interviewed.

Many owners depend on their general managers or personnel directors to determine who is available. Often, they'll recommend their friends from the so-called "fraternity." Once you're in, there's little to worry about; keep your nose clean and one day you just might get your chance. Unless you're black.

Too often, emphasis is put on the good old times and war stories instead of a man's ability to teach football. When you have 28 white head coaches and front offices that are white, they are going to pick other white coaches. I have no objection to a white coach being hired ahead of a black coach, if it's for the right reasons. However, the high percentage of blacks playing professional football today is a fact, and there are no black head coaches.

That ought to be embarrassing to the NFL. It's time for a change.