Pete Axthelm gives point spreads and picks winners on NBC's pregame professional football show, "NFL '83." Jimmy (The Greek) Snyder, who only picks winners for CBS's "NFL Today," believes what Axthelm does is illegal.

CBS spokesman Jay Rosenstein said, "We've always said that CBS' lawyers are different from NBC's. We don't use specific point spreads. Jimmy is part of the show as an analyst."

"Pete's a good friend, but when you give the numbers, you're disseminating gambling information, and that's illegal," Snyder said. "I stopped gambling (on football) myself in 1961 when they passed an antiracketeering law that says you can't give gambling information across state lines."

The law to which Snyder refers is Title 18, U.S. Code 1084, a piece of legislation designed by the Kennedy administration to eliminate the ability of bookmakers to do interstate or foreign business. But the law is plain and Axthelm is within it, according to sources in the U.S. Attorney's Office and Marvin Loewy, the deputy chief of the Justice Department's Organized Crime and Racketeering Section.

Section B of the law reads: "Nothing in this section shall be construed to prevent the transmission in interstate or foreign commerce of information for use in news reporting of sporting events or contests . . . "

In other words, Axthelm, or Gerald Strine in this newspaper, can give point spreads and make predictions on the basis of those spreads for use in "news reporting."

Loewy said, "You see, there has to be proof that whatever they are doing is for the purpose of furthering a gambling business." Well-known gamblers such as Bob Martin have been convicted precisely because they were found to be participating in such operations, something Axthelm is clearly not doing, Loewy said.

Apparently, Axthelm's decision to give point spreads is a point of competition with Snyder. Axthelm said, "If I'd been on the air before Jimmy, I might have done what he does.

"But I don't have any apprehension about it. It's a response to what people are doing. A large percentage, if not a majority, who are watching pro football, are wagering. But I don't think anybody who reads a point spread says, 'Hey, I think I'll start betting.' The only thing that's dangerous is the tout sheets that say, 'This is the best bet, really go for it, lock of the century.' There are some gullible people."

But the issue does not end there, for even if the legal question is clear, the ethical one is not. Should broadcasters, or newspapers, be giving betting lines in states where such gambling is against the law? What is the news value involved compared with the deleterious effect of such reports?

As recent weeks have made dramatically clear, laws in this country allow freedom to the press that is unknown in the Soviet Union and elsewhere. But what is also true is that individual television stations and newspapers make choices about what to air or print based not only on legal, but also ethical and commercial, reasons.

For NBC's Axthelm to give a point spread on a pregame show is legal, and definitely has a commercial appeal. But there is still the ethical question. A particular station or newspaper can decide that point spreads have little "news" value other than to inform gamblers, be they betting the mortgage or a beer.

Some might argue that the hard-core gambler gets his spreads and odds straight from Las Vegas or his neighborhood bookie and needs no help from television. That may be true. And some might argue that a lot of bets are made for fun and paltry stakes. That may be true, too.

But it does not matter a whit. Gambling may be called a victimless crime by officials at the Justice Department, but no one who is familiar with the tolls so often exacted by gambling on the gambler can call it a victimless activity. Remember Art Schlichter? Sure, thousands may gamble and only a few will ruin their lives with it, but that few should be sufficient to give a station or newspaper pause.

Gambling on football games is illegal in most states. Neither the press nor television should be in the business of providing point spreads or any other sort of help.