The question brings the conversation to a halt.

It is not an end-of-interrogation, I'm-mad type of halt. It's just that Michael Carter is laughing too hard to answer it.

"I knew that would come up," Carter says, when he has regained his composure.

The question always comes up in discussions with Carter at this time of year, ever since the day in 1979 when he threw the 12-pound shot 81 feet 3 1/2 inches as a senior at Jefferson High School in Dallas.

The question, of course, is whether Carter will be playing football for Southern Methodist in the fall. Track buffs insist, with good reason, that had Carter concentrated on the shot put the last four years, he would be the world-record holder in the 16-pound toss and a sure bet for Olympic gold.

If Carter were a Russian, there is no question that he would be a shot putter--period. But in the United States, an athlete still entertains freedom of choice, so each year the answer to the question has been "Yes."

Even after a football injury forced a knee operation and wiped out the entire 1982 track season, Carter opted to return to his relatively anonymous role as a football lineman. As it turned out, he and SMU fans were delighted that he did, because the Mustangs went unbeaten and whipped Pittsburgh in the Cotton Bowl.

"I enjoy football, especially after last season," the 6-2, 275-pound Carter said. "Once I got used to my knee, it was a lot of fun. Of course, I feel--our whole team feels--that we're the champions, because we didn't lose.

"Last weekend in Arizona I talked to Kenny Jackson (of No. 1 Penn State) and he said we were hurt because we're in a conference and had to play a lot of weak teams, while they were able to play the top guys. But I don't remember playing against any weak teams in the Southwest Conference."

Carter, who had not thrown the shot between July 1981 and January 1983 because of the demands of football and the knee surgery, took up where he left off at Pontiac, Mich., in March when he helped SMU capture the NCAA championship indoors.

That was his fifth shot title in five NCAA meets--three indoors and two outdoors. He began his quest for a sixth today in qualifying competition for Saturday's final. Whether he wins could have some bearing on this year's eventual answer to the question.

"I'll probably start thinking about it after this meet or after TAC," Carter said. "I'll talk to my coaches, but basically it will come down to what I want to do most.

"There's been a lot of pressure on me from both sides in the past, but I kind of avoid it most of the time. It begins to be a bother, particularly early in the football season, when it came out about disagreements on the football team.

"I've played football because I've enjoyed it, but one thing it's meant is that I've had to cut short my summers in Europe before to come back to football. This year, building up to the Olympics, I'd kind of like to see what I can do late in the summer when I'm reaching my peak.

"My knees are fine and last week I had the best practices of my life. I'd be disappointed if I didn't do very well here."

Carter also has qualified for Friday's final in the discus, where he is less skilled, in part because of a lack of practice time.

"I'm not as competitive in the discus, so I don't take it too seriously," he said. "With the shot I'm much more serious. I don't practice the discus hardly ever, because I have so much work in school and other things to do, but I would like to work on it and go out with a bang my last year."

He could, of course, find a lot more practice time if he gave up football. But there is something about a Texan's blood and the approach of opening kickoff that brews a mixture capable of pushing everything else aside--even Olympic gold.