Before Jim Lampley obtained his present position as an ABC network sportscaster, he was a self-described living-room critic of sports announcers. He couldn't understand how some of them got their jobs - and he was certain he could outperform any of them by merely showing up in the broadcasting booth.

"When I came out of the University of North Carolina, I saw myself as a journalist and so I was going to approach my job on a no-holds-barred basis and be as independent and free as any journalist could be," he said.

But Lampley soon discovered that Howard Cosell may be the only sportscaster in television who can brag - whether it's true or not - that he tells it like it is. Most of Cosell's peers are not about to make a similar claim.

"I'm not putting down TV sportscasters," said Lampley. "It's the institutional restraints that we have no control over. I have found it's impossible to examine a story and tell it freely.

"Do we tell the whole truth? Not always, because there is too much money on the line. I can tell a story to the degree it doesn't harm the relationship between the TV network and the promoter or sports organization involved. We have limitations which we have to recognize and live a within."

Those looking for the end of happy talk during games ("Even though their records don't show it, these teams have talent") and the start of more accurate reporting ("Frankly, both of these teams are not very good and aren't playing well today") will have to keep searching.

"We want our announcers to be entertaining, not to be boring," said Barry Frank, head of CBS sports. "But we do expect announcers to point out situations during the game that are wrong. If they have strong feelings on something, we can present it as clearly labeled commentary, but not at games."

As for more in-depth investigations by TV sports. Frank said he thought the idea "is a good one. We've got a lot of things to improve. The whole thing comes down to a matter of priorities."

Television people will tell you that those priorities usually involve not doing anything that will harm the financial relationship between the networks and the sports organizations that direct the televised events.It comes down to a matter of economics.

Besides, it is easy for announcers to become closely associated with the events they broadcast. They are celebrities and are treated accordingly by game organizers. It's an enjoyable position which could be altered considerably by critical comments from the broadcasting booth on game day.

"I don't care what the announcers say as long as they get it right," said Bob Cochran, NFL broadcast coordinator. "Those people want the best broadcasters possible. It's up to them to police their own ship.

"But it's got to be kind of hard for these people to pay rights fees for this (NFL games) and then be critical."

For Lampley, an idealist, earning Cochran's rule of thumb took some time.

"You learn the ropes through experience," he said. "There have been some compromises in my style.

"Now if anyone asks me my role. I'd have to tell them that I'm a broadcast journalist. That's different from being a pure journalist. That's why I get sick of reading in the print media about how we report events or what we leave out or what we sugar coat. Being a reporter on TV is just not the same as being one with a newspaper.

"We've got to be a little more perfect than a print journalist if we want things on the air. We can't afford to make a mistake. The big restraint is a commercial one. The more we pay for rights fees, the greater the vested interest. So if we are critical, it has to be accurate."

Lampley's primary job at ABC has been as a sideline broadcaster during college football games. While carrying out those duties, he has had some conflicts with both colleges and the NCAA.

"They (NCAA) see the college football package as a forum for promoting the college game," he said. "I've felt it was an opportunity to tell the story of college football from all sides. If it isn't positive for the game, they don't want it on."

Lampley admits that some of his journalistic forays have backfired because of his own inaccuracies. For example, he twice has given wrong information concerning colleges either on NCAA probation or under investigation by the NCAA. But other times he has found it difficult to be a working broadcast journalist through no fault of his own.

When Lampley tried to do a pregame piece on the Notre Dame football players who were suspended three years ago for violations of dorm rules, he was blocked by school officials. Lampley was upset because the print media was free to cover the story and he wasn't.

"I told the players about Lampley's request and they felt they had paid the penalty and didn't want to bring it up again," said Roger Valdiserri, Notre Dame sports publicist. "So we said no. I don't think they should be investigating the schools they are televising. That's not the prime purpose of their agreement with the NCAA."

Lampley, who believes the players were never given a chance to appear on camera, did a piece on them anyway, but he admits the fact he couldn't talk to them hindered the quality of the report.

On two other occasions, Lampley did pieces on college life that included students drinking beer at Missouri and Ohio State. In each instance, the school protested to the NCAA.

"The dean of students at Missouri said I gave an unfair portrayal of college life." Lampley said, "That's ridiculous. They are scared to death to see anything that demonstrates that college students are real humans who drink beer and yell like other people."

The NCAA has never tried to censor Lampley, but Tom Hansen, its assistant executive director, has told ABC sports "that we don't beleive games are a news show. We wouldn't welcome investigative reporting by ABC sports."

Says Lampley: "It got to a point that if I didn't hear from the NCAA for a few weeks. I thought I wasn't doing my job. But you can't blame them. They want a positive picture. And why shouldn't they?"

Whether announcing and the journalism among sportscasters eventually will improve is debatable. Larry Merchant, a former prominent columnist and newspaper sports editor who now works on NBC, told a recent meeting of Associated Press sports editors: "Most people in my (present) business don't really want (better reporting) . . . People don't expect journalism on the tube."

But Jim Spence of ABC is more optimistic. He says his announcers are granted as much journalistic freedom as possible. We've been a pioneer in this area, what with Howard Cosell and all.

"If there is a story that should be done, we are going to do it, even if the organization doesn't like it. The stories are hard to avoid, especially if the written press is into them.

"But we certainly wouldn't go out of our way to be controversial just for controversy's sake."

And what if the organizations involved objected when it came time to renegotiate the contract?

"I would say," Spence said after a pause, "that is the risk you have to take in this business."

Yet ABC fouled up a recent opportunity to practice television journalism during its telecast of the U.S. Open golf tournament.

When Hubert Green, the eventual winner, received a death threat during the final round. ABC agreed with the U.S. Golf Association not to talk about it on the air, in order to protect Green. But even when the tournament was over, and Green was safely off the course, the network did not mention the episode before signing off, despite its news value.

And now that Lampley probably will be given a chance to move from the sidelines to the broadcast booth during college games, an ABC executive admits the next sideline reporter "will not be into reporting like Jim. We want more features. More apple pie and motherhood."

According to Jack Craiz, the respected TV sports critic for the Boston Globe, "the closest sports TV ever got to good journalism was when Jim McKay handled that Israeli Olympic tragedy so well.

"People aren't ready for more journalism on TV and the networks aren't ready to deliver it, because eventually it would not serve their own interests. Most announcers on TV spend their time with hairstylists, not digging for stories."

Says another TV official: "Announcers have to look good, sound good and do what their bosses want. These people have mortgages to worry about. They are not going to be Woodard and Bernstein, not with three cars in the garage. There is no way the NFL wants the networks to do something on drugs or the NCAA on recruiting violations.

"Let's face it, the way things are today, Abe Lincoln couldn't have gotten an announcing job without shaving first."

Lampley, however, hasn't given up hope. "We can't abandon our attempts to be journalists," he said. "There is a place for journalism on TV sports. It just has to be developed more. And that takes time."