"If you lose public confidence in a sport, you're in trouble. An aura of suspicion is just as bad as guilt in sports. I remember a distinction I learned in Sunday school. Character is what you are. Reputation is what people think you are."

-- Pete Rozelle in 1969 Bachelors III-Joe Namath controversy

Despite a much-ballyhooed campaign to police itself, the National Football League has not always been effective in preventing players, owners and coaches from engaging in business deals or social relationships that could tarnish the league's widely accepted clean image.

As the pro football world descends on Pasadena, Calif., this week for the Super Bowl, NFL officials say their vigilance has spared the league the game-fixing scandals that have undermined other sports such as boxing, college basketball and horse racing.

But underneath the rosy picture conveyed by league officials, the NFL today finds itself increasingly on the defensive, finding off lingering criticism from this year's player strike and trying to grapple with continuing allegations of widespread drug use among players.

Last week, Commissioner Rozelle spoke out against allegations raised in a controversial Public Broadcasting System television documentary that questioned the effectiveness of the league's enforcement efforts. Rozelle termed the PBS report "cheap sensationalixm."

Through the years, the NFL has had difficulties in trying to enforce its self-imposed extralegal standards of conduct that ban players, coaches and owners from having off-field personal or business relationships with gamblers or criminals. No matter how innocent or innocuous such associations, league officials maintain that such contacts could create a false image of impropriety that could undermine public confidence in the game.

"The NFL is not an enforcer or a SWAT team," said former NFL executive director Jim Kensil, now president of the New York Jets. "It can't be with everybody every minute."

The NFL employs two full-time security officials, one an ex-FBI agent. They are assisted by a network of private investigators on retainer in each of the league's 28 cities. They have responsibility for overseeing the off-field conduct of 1,600 or so players in addition to owners, coaches and other NFL personnel.

Critics of the league's enforcement effort argue that the NFL's largely scandal-free image might not be completely deserved. Instead, it may be a testament to the NFL's ability to shield its problems from public view.

For instance, they say it's unrealistic to expect Rozelle to effectively probe the affairs of team owners, who pay his salary.

NFL officials say Rozelle has not hesitated to order players, coaches and owners to sever apparently questionable associations and business deals or face league-imposed fines or suspensions. But officials add they are not certain his authority to do so would stand up in court, if challenged.

Rozelle was not available to comment. Don Weiss, Rozelle's chief assistant, said the NFL sees its primary role as advising players, owners and others in the game on how to avoid potentially embarrassing associations and to bring questionable dealings to their attention. "We prefer to keep the disciplining of team personnel... between us and them rather than publicy announcing every disciplinary action," he said.

Weiss said in the vast majority of cases involving apparently questionable relationships, NFL personnel accept Rozelle's advice because they don't want to risk bringing discredit to the game.

However, Weiss said, Rozelle was unable to persuade Al Davis, the managing general partner of the Los Angeles Raiders, to dispose of his partnership in an Oakland shopping center with a Las Vegas casino owner, Allen R. Glick, who the FBI alleged in court affidavits was a frontman for the Mafia. Glick has stead-fastly denied the allegations.

Weiss noted that it was a private real estate venture separate from Davis' operation of the team, and Glick had no criminal record. Davis declined to comment this week.

Through the years, much of the publicity about apparently questionable relationships has focused on players. NFL officials said owners are more apt to settle such matters privately.

Some of the more celebrated examples include the one-year suspensions of star Green Bay halfback Paul Hornung and all-league defensive tackle Alex Karras in 1963 for betting on NFL games, Namath being ordered in 1969 to sell his interest in the New York night club Bachelors III that was frequented by gamblers, and more recent disclosures concerning former Oakland Raider quarterback Ken Stabler's association with a known gambler.

Owners and coaches have also been found in potentially embarrassing associations.

Shortly after Hornung and Karras were suspended, Rozelle cleared the late Carroll Rosenbloom, then owner of the Baltimore Colts, of allegations that he bet on NFL games, including participating in a $55,000 bet against the Colts in 1953.

In 1970, law enforcement officials investigating an Acapulco hotel discovered that Eugene V. Klein, the owner of the San Diego Chargers, had been a part owner in the hotel with a California lawyer who has been publicly identified by the California Crime Commission and others as a key West Coast operative for the Chicago organfized crime family.In 1969, Klein sold his interest in the hotel and, according to a spokesman, was unaware that the lawyer, Sidney R. Korshak, was one of the 12 stockholders in the hotel. The spokesman said that Korshak had also represented the San Diego Chargers once several years ago.

In 1972, testimony before a congressional committee revealed that John W. Mecom Jr., owner of the New Orleans Saints, was involved in a business deal with a known gambler and another man who had ties to the alleged head of the New Orleans organized crime organization. A spokesman for Mecom said that he severed his connections with the two men when he learned of their backgrounds.

Daniel M. Rooney, president of the Pittsburgh Steelers, said there is added pressure on NFL owners to be fully aware of the backgrounds of the people they do business with and to be conservative in selecting business ventures. "It can be very accidental to get into business with somebody" with a shady background, he said. Rooney's family, in addition to owning the Steelers, also owns race tracks. "We may have had the opportunity to go into other forms... of the gambling business (such as legal gambling casinos) but we would not go into it," Rooney said.

Sports betting tradionally has been the major source of income to organized crime, and with the rise in professional football's popularity, legal and illegal wagers on pro games have become a multibillion dollar business. "Betting on pro football is head and shoulders above baseball, hockey and basketball," said Charles Parsons, an FBI organized crime supervisor based in Las Vegas.

Ever since Nevada permitted casino hotels to operate legal sports bookmaking operations in 1975, the Stardust and Fremont casinos have been among the most active in the field, according to Parsons.

From 1974 through 1979, the Stardust and Fremont were owned by Glick, a San Diego lawyer who the FBI alleged in court affidavits was "merely a straw party controlled by the (Chicago) organized crime syndicate." Glick was not available to comment this week.

One of Glick's top lieutenants in operating his Las Vegas casinos was Frank (Lefty) Rosenthal, who the FBI alleged in affidavits was placed there to oversee the casinos for the Chicago Mafia. In 1960, Rosenthal pleaded no contest in North Carolina state court to a charge of attempting to bride a college basketball player. He was also mentioned in 1961 Senate testimony as one of several men who tried to bride a college football player.

When FBI agents, probing Glick's casino activities, searched his office in June 1978, they found documents revealing that Glick had been involved in California real estate deals with professional football coaches and owners, including Davis and Miami Dolphins Coach Don Shula.

Shula told reporters at the time that he never met Glick, that he got involved in the deal through Davis, and got out of the investment after he learned of Glick's Las Vegas involvement.

Davis said in a sworn deposition in 1980 taken during his antitrust suit against the NFL that he and other owners and coaches began investing in real estate with Glick in the early 1970s."When it became known that Mr. Glick bought casinos, etc., in Las Vegas, what we tried to do is wind down our business dealings with Mr. Glick," Davis said.

The NFL and federal law enforcement officials found that the investments with Glick were legitimate business deals.

The NFL's Weiss said that the league realizes that huge sums of money are bet on NFL games. "It's something we have to live with and we try to take whatever steps we can" to prevent sports betting from influencing professional football. "Ironically," Weiss said, "the amount of money that is wagered is probably a testiment to our popularity and to (the public's) confidence in the game."