By the standards of the Public Broadcasting System, your faithful correspondent is a suspicious character whose picture could be put on television, perhaps with a front view and profile. The night of Jan. 27, PBS could report, this suspicious character, with contacts throughout the world of pro sports, was seen in a dimly lit restaurant talking to a man accused of underworld connections while owning an NFL team.

At a press conference today, Pete Rozelle said he'll look into charges of guilt-by-association that beleaguer the NFL. Suspicion everywhere, from cocaine to gambling to fixed games, and before we get to Rozelle's oratory it seems right to show that PBS bloodhounds could sniff out suspicion even among saintly sportswriters.

It happened like this, Jessica. See, suspicious characters in dark night spots live near the edge of their nerves. So we remember every suspicious conversation, such as this one.

"Al, howya doing?" I said.

"Good, good to see ya," Al Davis said, and he sat down at the next table with Jimmy the Greek (talk about suspicious) and Ricardo Montalban (who wore a blue blazer and not his trademark white suit, as if meeting shadowy figures surreptitiously).

Even if Jessica Savitch does her Mike Wallace number on your correspondent, never will the PBS hounds discover another word that passed between these suspicious characters meeting so near the kickoff of the Super Bowl (because none did). To a waiter, Davis said, "Gimme the four-pound lobster." The suspecting type might suspect Davis' lobster order was a coded message to lieutenants (listening by wireless) signaling the start of Operation Super Bowl.


Ain't suspecting fun?

Not to move a cooling feather across Pete Rozelle's delicate brow in this time of heat and lightning (he has earned the sweats), but it seems that he and the NFL now are on the griddle for matters outside their control.

Who can control Public Broadcasting System if it wants to tar the NFL with bought-and-paid-for testimony from a convicted felon telling a clumsy story of fixes? If an NFL owner, with his megabucks and ego elephantiasis, wants to be partners with an alleged crime figure, how can the league legally stop him? Cocaine is tempting to hedonists with money, and there we have a description of NFL players. Can Rozelle police that?

The greater question, as Rozelle indicated today, is whether the NFL even has the legal power to control such stuff. He spoke of ticket-scalping charges lodged against some teams when he said, "We might have trouble making it stick (that) we're kicking him out of football."

That's because, if Rozelle tried it, the owner properly would run to court.

At his press conference, Rozelle did the only thing a commissioner could. He polished the league's image. Smoothly for the most part, save for a moment's blushing befuddlement when he meant to say a hoodlum's name and instead named the owner of the Los Angeles Rams, Rozelle said this season's troubles are indeed troubling but he's working on them.

He'll talk to Leonard Tose about the huge gambling losses run up by the Eagles' owner. Yet, Rozelle said, "I would be a helluva lot more concerned" if the Eagles' quarterback, Ron Jaworski, had lost $200,000 "because an owner doesn't have a big effect" on games. (Rozelle, so recently chased by the PBS bloodhounds, quickly said he didn't mean Jaworski is a gambler; he used the name only because of the Tose-Eagles connection.)

Then, surprise, surprise. The cocaine problem, once passed off by the NFL as a mirror of society's problem, is now seen differently. With thanks to Sports Illustrated for its story by Don Reese saying the NFL was under cocaine seige, Rozelle says cocaine use is "probably more serious in football" than in society "because of age and income."

Instead of hanging-judge decrees for drug abuse, Rozelle now says the league will work with players in treatment and rehabilitation.

The guilt-by-association problem is more difficult. As an employe of the owners, Rozelle hardly can be expected to slap leg-irons on them. He can tell them the league's image is good for business because the customers want an honest game.

But Rozelle cannot, and shouldn't be able to, control the business activities of the owners. If Al Davis wants to go to dinner in a dark restaurant with other suspicious folks, it's not for Rozelle to eavesdrop on their orders. They're big boys, it's their money, and they are beyond the NFL's legal reach because courts have ruled that each owner is an individual entity and not subject to partnership law.

It is left to poor Pete Rozelle, then, to stand before 300 saintly sportswriters and make light of those guilt-by-association charges he doesn't agree with. Al Davis and the underworld--a disgrace. Rozelle doesn't like Davis. Gene Klein and the underworld--there's an explanation.

Want a giggle? Here's Rozelle explaining how Klein, the Chargers' owner, came to own 10 percent of an Acapulco hotel with a California lawyer who (as reported in yesterday's Washington Post) "has been publicly reputed to be a key West Coast operative for the Chicago organized crime family."

Rozelle said Klein was playing tennis with a lawyer who asked, "Would you like to have 10 percent of a hotel in Acapulco?"

Rozelle said, "Klein said, 'That might be fun.' So he did it."

Without a second thought, without asking who his partners were, just because it might be fun, a multimillionaire bought 10 percent of a hotel.

And elephants fly.

Better that Rozelle just tell us he can't do anything except beg his bosses not to do such silly things.