The National Football League's collegiate draft has been an issue between the NFL Players Association and the league for some time. Various lawsuits were filed that questioned the validity of this restrictive draft - all met with vigorous defense from the NFL.

Standard arguments, used in the Joe Kapp, John Mackey and Jim (Yazoo) Smith cases, were heard in various courtrooms across the country. According to NFL management, "competitive balance" of the league was at stake, because without a draft, rich owners would buy the best talent available even if it meant operating at a loss. And, of course, no college player in his right mind would play for Green Bay if he could go to Miami instead.

The judges involved in this litigation, especially in the Yazoo Smith case, evidently didn't believe these arguments to be totally convincing. It was ruled that the present draft is "unreasonably restrictive to player freedom" and, thus illegal.

A modified draft, however, might be legal if fully endorsed by both the NFL and NFLPA. With this decision, the question of whether or not the present draft is the "lifeblood" of the NFL (as some owners have maintained) becomes somewhat of a moot point.

The only question to be resolved is what kind of draft will the NFLPA accept. Obviously, the best interests of pro football should be served in any decision that affects the basic structure of the game as we know it.

"Competitive balance," as the owners define it, is simply not relevant to this issue. After the Rozelle Rule was suspended in 1976, the so-called glamour cities did not attract a disproportionate number of free agents.

The fact is, most athletes want to play and not sit on the bench. Money is not necessarily the most important thing in a sport where pride, self-esteem and a fierce competitive instinct become almost second nature.

Exorbitant salaries are commanded by some professional athletes throughout the sports world. As a result, ticket prices have risen accordingly, often to the dismay of the loyal fan.

Fans can become understandably unhappy, but who is the real culprit? Is it the so-called "greedy" player with a short career and possible long-term physical problem a la Jon Jaqua and Mike Bass? Or is it the profit-minded owner who is willing to "pay the price" as long as a gullible public will continue to support an often over-priced entertainment product?

There is no real answer, no more than there is a real answer to the morality of any form of draft that treats football players like cattle and restricts their right to choose an employer.

This is not to imply that the issue of a college draft, modified or not, can be boiled down to a choice between the lesser of two evils. The NFL believes, rightly or wrongly, that some form of draft is necessary for the continued existence of the NFL.

To assure that the NFLPA will accept a modified draft proposal, a plum or two will have to be dangled in front of the players. Increased hospitalization, reinstatement of the now-defunct pension, more meal money and per diem, removal of Pete Rozelle as "neutral" arbitrator are examples of what the owners will be more than willing to give the NFLPA in exchange for a draft.

A settlement, in all probability, will be made in the next 30 to 60 days. When the smoke clears, it may be hard to pick a winner. One thing for sure, it won't be the public.