In the beginning, all athletes played for free. Presumably because the satisfactions of sport were payment enough.

But that blissful state was corrupted forever when some hungry athlete took a healthy bite from the apple of awareness and ound inside a dollar sign next to the worm.

It is human nature to always want more (some call it progress), and so it comes as no surprise that the bites taken by today's players are ever larger. Salaries for superstars are beyond conscience, and even the demands from benchwarmers tax a hand calculator.

It is not that I am opposed to the storage of earthly treasures that only money can buy. I have an eye for all that glitters, even the gold.

No, my problem is that I think someone (down here) is paying for all these multimillion-dollar pakcage deals with fringe benefits, bonuses and deferred payments.

And I have a sneaky feeling it is you and me.

The National Football League's payroll has gone up and so has the price of my ticket (now $20). In 1939, an average NFL payroll was $150,000, a sum that many rookies today would spurn as a bonus. By 1969, the average payroll was $1.4 million; in 1974, it climbed to $2.7 million.

The NFL estimates the average player salary at $50,000, "but there is no way to count for the incentives and bonuses paid individual players," said the NFL's Jim Kensil of the "anything goes" era.

Every pro sport wants to establish a minimum salary. No athlete wants to be restricted by a maximum, of course. And surely, no one can dictate an athlete's relative value, much less his absolute worth.

O. J. Simpson earns a respectable $800,000 a year. It is not a question of whether or not he's worth it. Obviously, worth is determined on the open market and by Bills owner Ralph Wilson's acquiesence to Simpson's salary demands.

But I am forever looking for signs that there are, indeed, rational minds concerned with pacing the payrolls so that pro sports will survive. So far, my search has been about as productive as studying cloud pictures or reading tea leaves.

I know it is the athlete who holds the guillotine lever. Because it is the athlete who fills the stadium with fans. It is the athlete who plays the game, gambles his limbs.

Pete Rose won his money gamble in Cincinnati as proof of that point. He turned down a $135,000 raise from the Reds' management and kept on demanding $400,000 a year. Instead of being reviled by local gentry, most of whom earn far, far less, Rose found himself the focus of a massive movement intent on making the Reds meet his demand.

Half-page newspaper advertisments taken but a weak explanation. "It boils down to what Pete Rose thinks he is worth and what our ball club feels he is worth. The question is, what is fair?" the club said.

The Reds answered their own question Tuesday by signing Pete Rose for $400,000 a year. Fair, as they say, is fair.

But pro sports cannot keep expanding if there is to be an open-ended monetary policy. It is a little like trying to raise teen-agers without establishing rules and curfews: if you give them an inch, they'll take a mile (usually in your car).

If O.J. Simpson is worth $800.000 on today's market, how long will it be before he (or a player like him) asks for $5 million or $10 million? When will someone have the courage to say "no" and mean it?

New York's Dave Kingman is currently locked in a salary dispute with the Mets. He says his home-run hitting ability is worth $2.7 million over the next six years. The Mets management went public with some comupter printouts that show Kingman to be a weak clutch hitter. Kingman has dropped his demand to $2 million.

What owners don't seem to realize that the athlete, no matter how lured by money, loves the game more. If the World Football League did anything for the sports world it was to prove that players, if pressed, will play for free.

Joe Namath, who may well be the athlete who first bit that dollar-and-cents apple, has turned away from the New York Jets who have been paying him $450,000 a year (some say it is "conscience money") and is said to be willing to sign with the Rams for a paltry $125,000.

All things considered his knees, his recent playing effectiveness, his proximity to Hollywood - I'd say Namath's decision to take what might be a precedent-setting cut is not only rational. It's fair. Really fair.