The city of Cincinnati, already famous in cold weather sports lore as the scene of Bowie Kuhn's thermal underwear caper, now has another dubious distinction as the site of pro football's latest ''Ice Bowl.''
Last Sunday two groups of athletes who had each battled through 17 games for a chance to see which was the better football team had to decide the issue instead on the basis of which was least affected by temperatures of 9 degrees below zero with a minus-59 wind-chill factor.
Of course the weather was the same for both teams. And I know that the Cincinnati Bengals, who proved themselves better suited than the San Diego Chargers to a North Pole expedition, can point to a regular-season victory in sunny California as evidence that they're just the better team, period. But all of this is beside the point.
The issue is whether anything as important as a conference championship game should be played in the middle of January in the wintry Northern climes where approximately half of the National Football League teams are situated. And this time it was just Cincinnati. What happens when the host team is, let's say, Buffalo in the midst of one of those two-foot snowstorms, or Green Bay, which was bad enough when these games were played in December?
Anyway, the answer to the first question above is ''No,'' as was made evident by Sunday's ridiculous parody of what was supposed to be a test of football skills. The bitter cold combined with the wind at Riverfront Stadium just about nullified the long passing game for both sides, and made even short passes an adventure, since the quarterbacks had trouble gripping the ball or controlling where it went.
In addition to these and other artistic considerations, there was the question of comfort -- or, rather, lack of same. Conditions were pretty tough for the 46,302 fans who braved the elements (another 13,000 or so had the good sense to stay home), and for the 80 players plus assorted team personnel who had no choice.
But players get paid pretty well these days, and since TV is at the root of both these wintry games and the high salaries, such duty can be considered an occupational hazard. And of course none of those fans had to show up.
The big objection is simply that whenever it comes down to deciding a title in any sport, you want conditions as close to ideal as possible. Unseasonable weather that prevents either side from playing at peak efficiency -- and which may affect one athlete or team more than another -- destroys the credibility of the contest.
Baseball has seen this happen several times in recent years because of stretching its season into late October. The most notable occasion, of course, was in 1976, when Commissioner Bowie Kuhn seemed to think that by going without a topcoat he could make people forget how cold it was. The 1979 World Series also had problems, with one game postponed because of cold and several others played in ski parka weather. But by and large, Kuhn & Co. have had better weather than they deserve -- though of course daring the elements in the late fall isn't quite the same high-risk game that football is now playing.
The NFL has also added a full month to its season little by little over the past couple of decades -- but in its case that means holding big games in mid-to-late January. In the event anyone hasn't shown Commissioner Pete Rozelle a calendar lately, that's the middle of the winter.
When this problem first arose with the creation of the Super Bowl, the league did the sensible thing, decreeing that the big game would be played only where reasonable conditions could be expected.
But now (let's show that calendar to Pete again) we're back to Square 1. To get even more revenue, the league has lengthened its playoffs in recent years. Thus it is that the conference championship games are now played in mid-January - a time when the league has already conceded that it is too risky to hold a big game in an uncovered Northern stadium.
To be fair, Rozelle did consider postponing Sunday's contest, but an expert on adverse weather conditions persuaded him to go ahead with it. One can well imagine that sometime around the middle of the fourth period the players would have loved to see that expert enter the game, even for just one play!
Obviously, the best solution is to go back to a season that ends in December. But since that isn't going to happen, the only reasonable alternative is to be consistent with the original thinking re the Super Bowl and hold the championship games in warm weather or covered sites.
Granted, it would be a shame to take games away from hometown fans, but it's the best of two imperfect solutions.
Caroll Rosenbloom, the late owner of the Los Angeles Rams, proposed this idea as long ago as 1974.
''Football is not a winter sport,'' he said. ''Our objective should be to do what we can to ensure that our big games at the end of the year are true tests of skill.''
Dallas Cowboys owner Tex Schramm has made similar proposals, but to no avail. Now, not too surprisingly, San Diego President Gene Klein says he will bring up the idea at the next league meeting. There's a lot of opposition, though, and if you go by past history, chances are that nothing will happen even with this latest example fresh in the owners' minds.
Of course there would always be some risk of bad weather anywhere except in a dome. It can rain anyplace, and in the North it can get pretty bad in December, or even late November. But then there's still a reasonable chance of good conditions. Once you get to mid-January, the odds against having a truly meaningful contest increase dramatically -- which is why it's long past time to do something about it.