Tommy Bell is a Kentucky lawyer who for 15 years was a referee in the National Football League. "During the week, I practice law," Bell has said. "On Sunday, I am the law." A measure of his distinction came last winter when the NFL chose Bell to work World War III.

It was the Oakland-Pittsburgh rematch, and America wondered what George Atkinson would do for an encore. In a spirit of gutter meanness, the Raiders' defensive back had struck Pittsburgh's Lynn Swann in the head earlier in the season. On film, Atkinson seemed intent on ruining Swann's good looks, if not his ability to stand upright.

An Oakland newspaperman wrote that Atkinson was lucky; he could have been tried for murder. The week of the rematch, another newspaper carried Atkinson's picture - with the cross-hairs of a gunsight trained on his head. The Pittsburgh coach, Chuck Noll, said Atkinson was part of the NFL's "criminal element."

Happily, Atkinson was on his best behavior in Round Two, and Bell said he spoke only once to the Oakland enforcer ("enforcer," by the way, is the word the Raiders used in their preseason press brochure to characterize Atkinson's style).

"It was funny," Bell said. "Phil Villapiano, the Raiders' linebacker, is a great talker, always yakking at somebody. He was on Terry Bradshaw, telling him he was choking, giving him a hard time.

"Well officials have to stop the talking. First, they're telling each other 'Happy New Near,' and pretty soon we're in real trouble. So I'm telling Villapiano to stop the talking, and Atkinson says to him, 'Why are you giving Mr. Bell so much trouble?'

"Villapiano told Atkinson, 'You're a fine one to talk.'

"And Atkinson said, 'I've never given you any trouble, have I, Mr. Bell?'

"'No, you haven't,' I said.

"Right quick, Atkinson says, 'Would you mind, then, testifying for me in my $2 million lawsuit?'"

That suit ended the other day when a jury decided Noll had not slandered Atkinson. By trial's end, in fact, Noll had added some of his own players to his list of NFL villians, andPete Rozelle, the lord of it all, said there was no place in his world for "unbridled or calculated violence." From reading the public prints, a guy might think the NFL was Devil's Island with goalposts.

Some people have always thought football a crime against society. Baseball's potential for violence - maybe 300 times a game a baseball flies toward a man at 90 miles per hour - is forgotten in the game's leisurely pace. If a basketball player chips a tooth against the rim (that's a major injury. Football is different, its enemies say. It breeds inhumanity. Anger wins games. You have to hurt people to succeed. The more you hurt more people, the more you win. It is war. Some people have always believed that, and say it is no happenstance tha pro football grew enormously in appeal when this country was ravaged by the emotions of Vietnam in the 1960s. A violent game for violent times.

But is it?

Bell doesn't think so. "There's less violence now than there was my first few years in the league," he said. "Back then, I'd throw 10-12 guys out of games a year. Lately, it's been one or two a season.

Television's instant replay has been a deterrent to assault, Bell said, because it is merciless in its exposure. And Bell said, "The caliber of play is improved so much but what I've noticed more than anything is the improved character of the players. The character around the league is great."

Bell, who believes, as a lot of people do, that football is a magnificent test of strength, speed and courage, doesn't want to believe George Atkinson betrayed his game intentionally.

While Bell didn't see the incident, not even on film, he said, "Just reading Atkinson's mind, I'd say he was going to deliver a blow. He'd made up his mind. Not even a blow to the head, which is my definition of violence in football. Something to just let Swann know he was there. Maybe Swann had said something to him, done something. But I can't believe any player ever intends to hurt somebody."

Jake Scott is a former All-Pro safetyman now with the Washington Redskins. The Atkinson verdict, Scott said, is one more sign "the game has changed . . . In the old days, there'd have been no controversy. Linebackers were taught that if a man comes across the middle he gets it. Now it's more sophisticated, more a game of skill."

What the ordinary fan doesn't realize, Scott said, is the very nature of football. Things happen quickly. Men trained to be aggressive react aggressively.Maybe, he said, Swann had clipped Atkinson the play before. Who knows what happened, he said, "Noll ought to apologize to Atkinson," Scott said. "He knows football."

Had Scott ever attacked a receiver as Atkinson did?

"I haven't," he said. "But I don't say I wouldn't. . . It's a tough game."

One thing more, Bell didn't testify in the Atkinson-Noll case. "It was kind of ridiculous for George to file it," the lawyer-referee said. "They made a mountain out of a molehill."