Speaking as one who knows, because he used to be one, boys will be boys. So a little towel-snapping, chest-pounding, spitball-throwing, macho posturing is hardly surprising.

Have pity on them, fellow Americans. The pro football locker-room antics you're reading about are only signs of nature asserting itself. Poor little insensitive and insecure savages, these male specimens never grew up.

Yes, the recent examples are outrageous. First, in Foxboro, Mass., a group of naked football mastodons emerges from the shower to surround a female reporter interviewing another player while seated in the locker room. They position themselves in front of her face, exposing themselves and orally abusing the reporter with sexual taunts.

Days later, the Cincinnati Bengals coach bans a female reporter from the locker room after the game. He does so, he exclaims piously, in the best interests of "my players and their wives." Thereby, and typically, this setter of standards for male jocks and enforcer of their rules indulges in sexist scapegoating and bullying. Implicitly, he endorses the deliberate intimidation of female sportswriters trying to do their already highly pressured deadline jobs by daring to enter the dank male sanctuary of the locker room.

But so what? Boys will be boys, and why should anyone expect pampered, overpaid athletes to display signs of growing up, to say nothing of maturity? Their life, after all, is a game. Childish, and sometimes boorish, behavior comes naturally to many of them, especially when they are accustomed to hearing the cheers of the crowds -- and jeers and boos of the crowds toward a female sportswriter with the temerity to intrude professionally into their playground.

Nor is this the only example of childish behavior the country has to ponder these days. On Capitol Hill, the antics of some politicians resemble nothing more than a romper room gone wild. They posture, they declaim loudly, they preen, they squabble, they attack. And, all in all, they display a level of maturity on a par with boys in short pants disrupting class by hurling erasers and throwing spitballs.

Study the faces of some of the loudest of these players in the political locker room as they flock, moth-like, toward the television cameras for their daily publicity fix. A leering, sneering quality animates them as they boast of indulging in scorched-earth tactics and of being willing to tear down the temples of government to achieve their own ends.

Though they mouth pieties about wanting to inspire economic growth, to defend the interests of ordinary citizens and to exalt the politics of populism, theirs is the politics of irresponsiblity. They are obstructionists, pure and simple, and they exhibit the same kind of contempt to outsiders as the athletes secure inside their locker rooms.

If it were not so serious, the present political spectacle would be rich farce; but it is serious, and the entire country knows it.

On very public display is a political breakdown of massive proportions. Leaders find it increasingly hard to lead, consensus deteriorates amid warring factions, and selfish interests prevail over national ones. There are many reasons for this state of affairs, and many have longer antecedents than the familiar catalogue of long-accumulating bills of the 1980s finally coming due in the '90s.

Among the causes are the decline of the political parties; the collapse of party unity, abetted by the weakening of party leaders through the end of the seniority system that imposed a certain political order; the long period of divided government that has kept legislative and executive power in separate hands, and the freelance, lone-wolf, entrepreneurial nature of politics in the age of television.

Perhaps above all else is another characteristic of the political system: the incumbency Congress.

For years, members of Congress have been increasingly immune to the normal pressures and demands of their political constituents. As voting participation has declined each year, the special interest groups that raise the money necessary to maintain individual congressional seats have assumed greater influence and power. Too often they, and the members of Congress they elect, place their interests above those of the larger citizenry beyond Washington. The distance between the incumbency Congress and the citizenry grows mightily.

No quick fix is evident, or possible. The change that will, and must, come will not be easy or painless. But neither is the process of growing up, putting aside childish behavior and assuming responsiblity for one's actions.