IN 1972 the Congress was impelled by practical realities to codify into law the morally and philosophically obvious principle that American girls are entitled to the same educational opportunities as boys. In so doing, it converted the playing fields of academe into a battle-ground, peopled with the most unlikely warriors.

On the side of equality, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, charged with enforcement of that superficially simple mandate, did not issue implementing regulations until 1975, even then allowed three more years to achieve compliance and is only now, some eight months after expiration of that judgment period, considering a draft of policies designed to put teeth into the law.

And on the side of inequality, purporting to speak on behalf of a generation of students perhaps more truly egalitarian than any before them, are the presidents of our leading academic institutions, the very people from whom one might expect the students to have learned to value such cherished principles as equality.

And what is this war about? The champions of inequality would have it that the American Way of Life is at stake. If indeed there is no more to that way of life than keeping up with the Joneses, then perhaps it is, because the war is all about money.

In 1973, the major colleges and universities spent over $225 million on their men's intercollegiate athletic programs and less than $5 million on their women's intercollegiate programs.

Ordinarily serious and thoughtful presidents, who five years ago publicly disdained the crassness and commercial exploitation of male student-athletes that typified many intercollegiate athletic programs, and bragged that they were prouder of their universities' art collections, now talk as if the Republic's survival depends upon retention of grossly inflated college football programs, more than 80 percent of which lose money.

As frightening as that presidential viewpoint, is the academic structure which presumably led to it. It is not unusual, for example, for the football coach to be paid more than the college president-a fact reflected in the status accorded each by the influential alumni association as well.

And while this reversal of values is itself a damning indictment of higher education in America, the most ironical aspect of it all is that the football coaches and Saturday afternoon quarterbacks from the class of '42 are not even good economists, because their own facts bely their contention that equal athletic opportunities for women mean none at all for anyone.

While virtually all the comments now on file with HEW in response to its recently issued draft policies on Title 9 compliance urge that football expenses not be counted in assessing Title 9 compliance because those expenses are claimed to be necessary to generate revenue to support the remainder of the athletic program for men and women, the NCAA's own published figures show that four out of five colleges lose money on their football programs.

The past six years have seen substantial growth in women's intercollegiate athletics. In 1973 the average total budget for women in major institutions was $27,000. By 1978 this figure had grown to $276,000.

Interestingly, this growth in the women's budget did not stem the increase in men's budgets, which grew from an average of $1.2 million in 1973 to $1.65 million in 1978.

Obviously, despite the recurring chant of the doomsayers, Title 9 has not meant a cutback in men's athletic programs: the average men's budget has substantially increased; the number of teams offered for men has not diminished; and an average of 95 full ride football scholarships continue to be awarded for a game that requires 11 players.

The final "implementation" policies which are now the focus of such passions, and which HEW Secretary Joseph Califano Jr. has promised to issue soon, in fact only invite attack because they are so equivocal as to lead such critics as the National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education to suggest that they provide a blueprint for institutions seeking to retain the discriminatory status quo.

The coalition finds the HEW proposal woefully short of the equal opportunity Congress promised in 1972. It argues that full equality of opportunity is required now, not at some future unspecified time, and that "good faith" efforts do not constitute compliance with the law or the 1975 regulations.

HEW is on the right track. Tentative and timid as its efforts may sometimes seem, it has at least held firm on the basic principles of Title 9. However, the policies expected next month can only be effective in achieving their intent to the extent that institutions are offered specific, practical guidance on compliance methodology.

Accordingly, whatever their personal views on equality may be, all parties alike would be better served if the final draft found clear words in which to express the courage of its convictions, convictions which constitute the law of the land. CAPTION: Picture, Title 9, AP