The National Football League has told the five networks televising its games that they will not be authorized to discuss point spreads on the air this fall.

The directive, part of discussions that stretched over months during negotiations for the latest TV contracts, doesn't sit well with all network executives, but most say they will go along because they don't give odds over the air, anyway. Only ESPN employs an oddsmaker, commentator Pete Axthelm.

Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said last week that the NFL, which has come out strongly against such things as the Oregon football lottery, wants to discourage the appearance of supporting gambling on its telecasts.

Some network executives, while agreeing with Tagliabue, said they wonder if this is a form of censorship.

"We told them during our negotiations, and it was really a very subsidiary item, it was sort of a throwaway item," Tagliabue said. "There was no disagreement. We said we do not want to be open to criticism that the telecasts in any way, shape or form are encouraging gambling on NFL games. I think all of the networks, said, 'Yeah, that's right.' We said we would be proposing contract language to make it clear they were not authorized under our contracts to have programming which could be viewed as encouraging gambling, whether it included a reference to the point spread or whatever. They said fine, and we sent them the contract language. I don't think any of them has a problem with it."

The NFL sold the rights to televise its games to CBS, NBC, ABC, ESPN and TBS for a total of $3.6 billion over four years, the largest television package in sports history. But it's not just the games the NFL said it controls. It also said it has a say over what goes on the air during pre- and post-game shows, said Val Pinchbeck, the league's vice president for broadcasting.

"Would you be able to sell a pregame show if there were no game?" Pinchbeck said.

While they say they believe the issue will be resolved without any trouble, some officials at the networks did express concern over the comments of league executives.

"The editorial content of our shows is not focused on point spreads anyway," said Jay Rosenstein, vice president of programming for CBS Sports. "But we feel strongly that we are responsible for television production and programming and that's the way it shall remain. If it's a contractual point, I don't think it will be an issue. I'm reasonably certain that will be understood by all."

"We had been considering {dropping the oddsmaker} because betting on football is illegal in 49 states," said Steven Bornstein, ESPN's executive vice president of programming and production. "I can understand {the restrictions} in NFL-related programming. But we intend to look at {the NFL's request} in other programming" before the network decides if it will comply or not.

A network executive who asked to remain unnamed viewed the issue in much stronger terms.

"What does the NFL think it owns? Their product is the game. That's fine. Do they own information? How can they dictate what goes on in the pre-game and post-game shows? The key question is censorship," the executive said.

A network source who also requested anonymity said the NFL was "trying to control program content."

"Although the stipulations don't apply to us, we don't want them telling us what we can and cannot do," he said. "It's going to be very hard to talk about what constitutes an upset without mentioning the odds. Point spreads are a yardstick, a typical, accepted yardstick, accepted beyond gambling. We've got all this money invested in the NFL and now they want to dictate program content."

That's not so, said Pinchbeck.

"We are not totally hung up on the way we word it or the way it gets done, just so it does get done," Pinchbeck said yesterday. "I don't think we're talking about censorship. We are talking about something that is against the law, and we don't want to see it on our broadcasts. As part of the process of negotiating the TV rights, we told the networks, 'We've got a problem we have to solve,' and they agreed. We are happily accomplishing this."

Other than possibly ESPN, none of the networks was planning to use an oddsmaker this season. NBC has not had someone picking games against the point spread since 1987, a spokesman said. CBS fired Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder in January 1988 after he made controversial racial remarks, but even in his last few years at the network, he did not use point spreads. ABC never has discussed odds on the air, a spokesman said. TBS has told the NFL it has no plans to employ an oddsmaker in its first year of televising the NFL, although oddsmaker Danny Sheridan appears on CNN, which also is under the Turner broadcasting umbrella.

In his discussions with the networks, Tagliabue said he gave the executives some guidelines for what should and should not be done in predicting the results of games.

"I was asked if my comments included a prohibition on an Axthelm-type point spread and I said 'Yes, certainly, that's what I had in my mind,' and I think it was clear that that's what we were talking about," Tagliabue said. "As to someone on television saying, 'Who's going to win, the Redskins or the Cowboys? I think the Redskins are the stronger team,' I think that's permissible.

"We're not trying to be puritanical about this. We're trying to have programming that cannot be criticized as linking the NFL with any encouragement of gambling."

One of the main reasons the NFL is doing this now is the scrutiny the league came under when it protested the emergence of sports lotteries based on NFL results in Oregon and other states.

"We have walked into state hearings and they say to us, 'If you feel so strongly, why don't you do something about your broadcasts?' " Pinchbeck said. "So now we are."