A prevailing current of public sentiment concerning the NFL strike asserts that the striking players are greedy, overpaid athletes who should be content with their hefty salaries. This moral outrage misses the crux of the dispute.

Of course, the players are not poor working stiffs struggling to gain decent salaries and job protection. But so what if the average player makes $200,000, $400,000 or $800,000 a year? Professional football is an exceedingly lucrative business. High salaries are there to be paid; the question is how much.

The fact that professional athletes make much more money than most of us is a peripheral concern. The real issue is power, and how much power the players' association and the owners can control and assert. The players want higher salaries, more secure pensions and greater freedom to market their skills -- not exactly unusual worker interests. Their power play is the strike. The owners want greater freedom to run their enterprises. Their power play is to organize scab games in an attempt to undermine the NFLPA.

Sympathy for one side or the other is really not at issue either, because the players are not exploited workers and the owners are not being bludgeoned by a more powerful adversary. It is important to have a clear understanding of the dispute, in which two organized and wealthy interest groups are battling to acquire as much of a large financial pie as they can.

To rail against the "overpaid" players smacks of envy of their high salaries, as well as annoyance that the weekly ritual of Sunday football has been disrupted. It fails to be a persuasive indictment of the strike decision. PAUL D. BOYNTON Washington