CAPTION: Illustration, no caption, By Tom Gibson for The Washington Post $120 The Soviet didn't leave Afghanistan by President Carter's Feb. 20 deadline, and now the National Broadcasting Corp. is left holding an awkward financial, philosophical and political bag. The financial aspect is the most obvious. NBC agreed to pay the Soviet Union $87 million (more than two-thirds of it already delivered) for exclusive rights to air the summer Olympics in Moscow. That's a lot of money, but it wouldn't have been a bad deal -- NBC stood to make a profit of some $25 million -- if things had gone as expected. But the expected U.S. boycott of the Games could transform the deal into a major financial loss for NBC, a multimillion-dollar bag of ashes. While it is true that NBC is insured for 90 percent of the $87 million outlay (by Lloyds of London and others), there are other losses that are not covered -- principally the cost of shipping some 45 tons of equipment to Moscow and the anticipated loss of advertising revenues, estimated at an average $165,000 a minute. There is no way to put a dollar figure on the loss of the ratings boost that would have been provided by airing the Games. The philosophical aspect is more nebulous, though not necessarily easier to deal with: how much influence should the U.S. government have over the programming decisions of a private network? Apparently the Carter administration has not tried to pressure NBC into abandoning its plans to cover the Games, the pressure having been applied instead to the U.S. Olympic Committee. It is, nevertheless, as obvious to NBC as it is to the rest of us that if the White House believes it is in the national interest to boycott the Games, it must also believe it is in the national interest not to help the Soviets by broadcasting them. Should NBC show its partriotism by calling off its coverage? (When it was clear that the administration would have preferred less intensive coverage of the terrorist "students" who were holding the U.S. hostages in Tehran -- particularly the interviews filmed under conditions established by the terrorists -- the networks took the position that their responsibility was to journalism, not to the desires of the White House.) NBC, trying desperately to keep a low profile on the issue of Olympic coverage, will not go beyond its terse statement that it "will of course be guided in making its plans by the policies and regulations of the U.S. government." Nevertheless, it is obvious that NBC's preference would be for the Games to go forward with U.S. participation. Its second choice would be to know as early as possible that the United States won't be there. The very worst situation is the actual one: not knowing what the USOC will do. Despite intensive pressure from the White House no formal decision will be made until the April 11 meeting of the USOC. Carter has described his position on the Feb. 20 deadline as "irrevocable," and the USOC has indicated that it won't defy the president. But if circumstances should change drastically over the next several weeks -- if Russia pulls its troops out of Afghanistan and the crises there is resolved -- the USOC might well decide to send a team to avoid the prospect of a one-country boycott. And in such a case, NBC would have the very devil of a problem. The only possible reason for not going through with the boycott in that case would be to avoid the appearance of defying the president. That would be a political decision, not a journalistic one. It is possible, of course, to distinguish between "news" coverage and "sports" coverage. If the world's top athletes, whether they include U.S. athletes or not, show up in Moscow, that's news. If records are set or if major upsets occur, that's news. Should NBC keep its Joe Garagiolas home and send it John Chancellors instead? Should it provide live coverage, or confine its report to the sports section of its news programming? Surely NBC cannot be expected to provide less coverage than say, the newspapers. No doubt NBC's final decision will be based in part on its reading of the public sentiment. If the public perception is that the administration has got itself into a box that makes it impossible to react to changed circumstances, there may a good deal of American interest in the games. But if the boycott gets tied up with notions of patriotism, substantial coverage of the Games could be read as un-American. Unfortunately for NBC, none of this is likely to become clear very soon. That's the nature of the bag the network is stuck with.