Another season of shame has passed in the National Football League, one more year in which black men were judged qualified to star for their teams but not to manage them. For the 20th time in the Super Bowl's 20-year existence, blacks will be among the leaders on the field but not in the front office.

Our most popular sporting business is the least progressive. Probably, this massive appeal is a major reason for the NFL's management decisions.

Win or lose, most owners turn a tidy profit each year -- and the value of their franchises escalates. Most stadiums either are sold out each week, or close to capacity.

So why even hop on the boat, let alone rock it?

Walter Payton can do everything in football just now except dream. Same with the exceptional defender who will lead his Patriots against Payton's Bears Sunday in New Orleans, Andre Tippett. Same with Henry Lawrence of the Raiders and so many more.

History shows that the NFL will make wonderful use of their bodies, but not their minds. If tactics were as slow to evolve in the NFL as social progress, teams still would be in leather helmets and running the single wing.

There was one general manager vacancy in the league and four head-coaching jobs open after the season. I would bet that not one black was even interviewed for any of them.

A generation ago, when somebody would inquire of NFL poohbahs why the ranks of head coach and general manager were lily-white, the answer was: name one qualified black.

That no longer works.

Want a black man qualified to be a general manager in the NFL? I can name one: Bobby Mitchell. Also, I can rattle off at least a half-dozen others who should have been groomed for managerial positions but were not.

Mitchell was.

He's been very good for a very long time, and still shut out. I cannot fathom how owners allegedly obsessed with winning could look past a Hall of Fame player who knows scouting and finances and who has organized training camps and Super Bowl functions. They have.

If Bobby Mitchell hasn't earned the chance to run a pro football team, Lee Iacocca isn't qualified to manage a Chrysler dealership on the Rockville Pike.

Vince Lombardi persuaded Mitchell to join Redskins management after his retirement in 1968; George Allen educated him in the ways of the league.

"I learned more football," Mitchell said in the spring of 1983, "more about the league and how to get things done under George Allen in those seven years [from 1971 through '77] than anybody [else] could have taught me.

"Like to have ran me crazy. I didn't have a gray hair when I met him. Three years later, it's gray all over. Dammit, though, he taught me. Have to give him credit for that . . .

"The only reason I stayed all these years was the hope that somebody eventually would say: 'Hey, Bobby Mitchell's good enough to do that.' I think about all the guys I used to have to show how to find a school who now are personnel directors or general managers.

"Certainly, in the back of my mind it's there. But it's not eatin' at me like it once was. This is a business where somebody has to take a chance. And most owners don't have that kind of guts."

As The Post's Gary Pomerantz reported recently, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of black assistant coaches in the NFL; there are 32 in all. Three (Tony Dungy of the Steelers, Billie Matthews with the Colts and Jimmy Raye of the Buccaneers) are in charge of an offense or defense.

Since 1981, the NFL also has sponsored a program during training camp that about 1,000 coaches from the nation's 48 predominantly black colleges have attended. That surely has speeded upward mobility.

Still, reacting to the 26-year-old son of Miami's Don Shula being prominently mentioned for the Eagles' head coaching job, Raye told Pomerantz: "We're always being told that being in the right place at the right time is important. I guess this is a case of being born in the right place at the right time."

Cynics suggest that Don Shula's grandson, David's boy, Danny, might be an NFL head coach before Raye and others from the black talent pool. Danny turned 2 in October.

Maybe many blacks are too smart to get into coaching. It's a business with more heartaches than glory. Even good head coaches are three knee injuries and two lousy drafts away from unemployment.

But Payton, Tippett, Lawrence or any other player -- black and white -- has devoted so much time to football that the logical career move is into coaching or management.

How appealing can that be when advancement seems no higher than being able to tell the fullback whether to run left, right or straight ahead. Or to make sure the frisky middle linebacker has gone beddy-bye at a decent hour before game day.

Pro football is life with a two-minute warning. Unfair a great deal of the time. Hundreds of talented white assistants and mid-level managers also have gotten bypassed.

There are hundreds of thousands of youngsters who aspire to football fame and fortune; there are 28 NFL head coaches and 28 NFL general managers. And one asinine attitude toward blacks: not yet.