O.J. Simpson was in Los Angeles with a friend watching the Redskins play the Cowboys on television Monday night when he heard his ABC colleague, Howard Cosell, refer to Washington wide receiver Alvin Garrett as "that little monkey."

"The minute he said it," Simpson said yesterday, "I turned to the guy and said, 'Oh, geez, I wish I could be in the booth right now and get on Howard's case. He's gonna regret it . . . '

"What would I have said? Oh, something like 'Howard, a monkey? Okay, now I see where you're coming from. All those years I thought you were this big liberal. Now we know.' I could have teased it over a little bit. I think I could have helped him out a little," said Simpson.

"But any black person who knows Howard and his stand on John Carlos, Tommie Smith, Curt Flood, Muhammad Ali, knows that Howard is a good man. You should never doubt his feelings racially.

"It was an unfortunate choice of words because of the sensitivity of the black man in this country. I've called white guys 'the big moose' or 'the big hoss' on the air.

"But whites don't worry about that. We as blacks have had to fight it all our lives. That's why Amos 'n' Andy isn't on television, yet they can have Laverne and Shirley look like such fools and everybody thinks it's great.

"But blacks in America can't, and shouldn't, question where Howard Cosell stands racially. His deeds in the past tell you that. He doesn't have to apologize for anything."

Arthur Ashe also came to Cosell's defense yesterday. "He called me, literally woke me up at 6:30 this morning," Ashe said. "I haven't seen him this concerned about something in ages. He is very concerned about the reaction. I agree with O.J. I do not want the black community to think that Howard is like that. He is not. He is the first one to defend somebody he thinks his right. There was nothing racial in what he said."

Clearly, not everyone agrees. But let's put all of this in some sort of perspective.

First, there is no doubt that Cosell made the remark regarding Garrett. On the air, he made like the Russians. He denied all. After the game, he said he did not remember using that expression. But 50 million plus viewers--O.J. Simpson and Arthur Ashe included--heard it. Get Howard a Betamax.

Let's also put the comment in context. Garrett had just caught yet another pass for a nice gain against the Cowboys when Cosell said "Jake (sic) Gibbs wanted to get this kid and that little monkey gets loose, doesn't he." Uh, Howard, that's Joe Gibbs. J-O-E. You remember, won the Super Bowl last January.

Wrong to say Jake, and even worse to use the term "little monkey." Some people--at least 20 called this newspaper and an ABC spokesman said the network received several hundred calls--perceived it as a racial slur. That is their prerogative, of course, just as it is Cosell's prerogative to insist he was merely praising Garrett. Back in context, Cosell clearly spent a good portion of the first half extolling Garrett's virtues.

After Monday night's game, Garrett had a little fun with Cosell himself. "It didn't offend me because Howard is always shooting off his mouth," he said. "I think he looks like a monkey . . . "

Yesterday, the Redskins released two statements, one signed by Garrett, the other by team owner Jack Kent Cooke.

"I, Alvin Garrett, think Howard Cosell is just great," Garrett said. "And I did not, and do not, take exception to anything he said about me in the broadcast last night. Matter of fact, I am pleased he singled me out for such favorable attention."

Said Cooke: "We, the Washington Redskins, are flabbergasted at the furor raised by Howard Cosell's comment about Alvin Garrett last night. To our certain knowledge, Howard Cosell did not intend nor mean to impugn Alvin Garrett's race, size or character when he referred to him as he did in a manner that can be described, at least, as affectionate."

Roone Arledge, president of the ABC sports and news divisions, also had a statement, saying the use of the word monkey was an unfortunate one but praising Cosell's "superlative and continuing record of promoting harmonious race relationships" and ending with the thought that the comment was "intended as an expression of affection."

It seems likely that all this monkey business would have gone mostly unnoticed if not for Cosell himself. If he had simply kept quiet the furor would have been minimal.

Cosell just had to deny the undeniable, his biggest mistake on a broadcast that showed some of the very best moments, and one of the worst, in the history of Monday Night Football.

Yesterday, The Rev. Joseph Lowery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, held a news conference at Atlanta's City Hall and called on Cosell to apologize. According to the Associated Press, Lowery admitted that the remark was "a slip of the tongue, but it was a slip that reflected a thought." He also said Cosell "ought to be man enough and big enough to say 'I said it and I'm sorry.' "

On his radio show aired in New York last night, Cosell said he often used the term "little monkey" with his grandson and that it was "not remotely connected to racism."

Later, Cosell called Lowery and apologized for using the term. "He told me over the phone that he regretted using the word and assured me and millions of people that he did not use the word in a derogatory fashion," Lowery said.

However, he has yet to apologize publicly. He should, and then apologize, too, for his denial. That would be known as telling it like it is.