Callous toad! You thought Willie Gault was just a rookie receiver for the Chicago Bears? Probably thought he slept in his jersey and ate chopped rocks for lunch. No way. Phyllis George, like her CBS colleagues on "NFL Today" and her NBC rivals on "NFL '83," shows you the cuddly underside of football.

You might have seen it last Sunday: Willie Gault goes furniture shopping. He strokes the oak. He knocks on wood. He pulls out drawers and checks the grain with a discernment equal to any well-heeled lakefront customer. The reason we're along for this shopping spree is that Willie Gault's heels are as flashy as Mercury's. But now we know he's no god. Gosh!

Quick. Flick to NBC. There's Kellen Winslow, the Chargers' imposing tight end. We're watching a "Sunday Chronicle." Won't it give you a glow next time you see Winslow gather in a touchdown pass now that you know Kellen "is a very sensitive person who cares about other people?" Gosh! The sporting life is even duckier than you imagined.

Cynic, you say. Is it so bad to take a fluffy, personal look at the man behind the face mask? Does every story have to be concerned with drugs or the corporate maneuvering of the NFL?

Not at all. Violent, wealthy and worldly though it may be, football is still a game and not as demanding of our seriousness as some may think. But on the two half-hour pregame shows--the very periods when the networks themselves say they are presenting journalism along with the game analysis and hoo-ha lead-ins--balance is way off. The puff vastly outweighs the substantial.

There are reasons. The most basic is not likely to change. Unlike the rest of the media, the networks are financial partners with the NFL. They have grown rich together.

Brent Musburger, once a print journalist in Chicago and the host of "NFL Today" since 1974, admits the NFL-TV relationship influences the substance and tone of the show.

"It's different because it's a tremendous financial partnership," he said. "The Boston Globe would be more critical of the Sullivan family (which owns the Patriots) than 'NFL Today' would be. We wouldn't land with both feet on them. There's a different kind of relationship for broadcasters.

"If there is an influence, it's more on a personal level than a corporate level. All four of us on the show are close to at least one owner. Jimmy (The Greek) Snyder is tight with Al Davis in Oakland, Phyllis is close to Tex Schramm and Tom Landry in Dallas, nobody is closer to the Eagles and the Tose family in Philly than Irv Cross, and I know the Halas people very well from my years in Chicago." Musburger said he was "reluctant" in his reporting on stories about the Bears.

Musburger said he recently wanted to conduct an interview with Doug Williams, the former Tampa Bay quarterback who signed a contract with the USFL last month. At first, CBS officials balked because "it would be a free promo for the USFL" and ABC, which carries the league's games. The interview aired at Musburger's insistence.

Both Musburger and "NFL '83" producer John Filipelli insist the situation has actually improved in recent years, that the pregame shows are confronting issues with frequency and frankness. While CBS generally looks to Musburger for the harder stories, NBC has introduced Dave Marash, a New York newscaster, on the "NFL 83" program. So far, Marash's work is mixed. His interview with Pete Rozelle produced nothing new, his two-part report on steroids report was better, but last week's turn to standard work--a report on why the Houston Oilers can't win--was a turn for the worse.

"The stories are hard," Filipelli said of Marash's work. "Could they be harder? They probably could be. I want Dave to be informative. I have no problem if Dave takes the gloves off." But, said Filipelli, "Brent's point is well-taken. You don't bite the hand that feeds you."

Perhaps a greater, and more solvable, problem than the juggling of commercial and journalistic interests is the press-release writing and cloying jokiness that plagues the pregame shows. Especially on CBS, the broadcasters sound as if they were reading from cue cards prepared by the weariest Pocono Mountain gagster. And then the poor host must smile! smile! smile! until it appears as though his upper lip will freeze forever in a parabola. The resemblance to the worst of local evening newscasts is painful.

"Our show should be a combination of things," Musburger said. "I don't view it strictly as entertainment, but I also don't view it as '30 Minutes'--our version of '60 Minutes.' "

That is fair enough, and Musburger's candor is refreshing. But the combination menu, on both networks, is weak. The fluffy stuff is too prevalent, the funny stuff usually isn't and the serious stuff doesn't try hard enough often enough. Only the highlight films, the undoctored product of the sport itself, demand no improvement.