How widespread is drug use among athletes on America's college campuses? The answers vary. Harry Edwards, for one, argues, ''We have the equivalent of a nuclear arms race'' in drug-taking, especially by players in the revenue-producing sports of football and basketball.
Dr. Edwards, the noted sports sociologist from the University of California at Berkeley, says players and coaches ''are the greatest imitators in the world.'' Not only do some players take ''performance-enhancing'' drugs such as anabolic steroids and amphetamines because they know the professionals are using them, he claims, but also because they believe their opponents are as well. In doing so, he says, they also set an example for other athletes in the so-called minor sports on their own campuses.
''We have to admit that in most college athletic training rooms the pill, the capsule, and the needle have become commonplace,'' Edwards contends.
Edwards calls collegiate athletes ''production units'' to be returned to service as quickly as possible when they are hurt. He cites the example of a football player who has to be helped to the locker room in the first half of a game because of a leg injury but is back on the field for the second-half kickoff.
''We're shooting kids up, let's face it,'' he says. ''Four years of that, and you have guys walking around, 22, 23, 24 years old - 90 percent of whom are never drafted (by the professional teams), 80 percent of whom do not graduate - with 55-year-old bodies.''
Indeed, Edwards says, injuries stemming from the use of performance-related drugs are as potentially damaging as those related to abuse of so-called recreational drugs like cocaine and alcohol.
Dr. Bertram Zarins, co-director of the sports medicine clinic at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, agrees with Edwards on the arms-race analogy.
''It's an international problem, though,'' he says. ''We can clean it up in this country if there's enough pressure to do it. But it's not a burning social issue.''
Because of potential dangers to growing male and female athletes from the use of steroids - prescription drugs used illicitly by athletes to build muscle mass and strength - Dr. Zarins thinks there should be the option of spot-testing for such use even at the high-school level.
Bobby Barton, president of the National Athletic Trainers Association, however, says Harry Edwards's assertion that drugs are commonplace in training rooms is ''a gross overstatement.''
Mr. Barton's group went on record in 1968 as completely condemning ''the use of . . . stimulants, depressants, and anabolic steroids - in attempts to gain advantage in sports performances.''
''We're on a much sounder basis now vis-a-vis drugs than we were 10 years ago ,'' he says. ''For the most part, the athletic trainers have done a great job in cleaning up our profession.''
Yet Barton, who doubles as head trainer at Eastern Kentucky University and as a teacher of drug education courses at the school, says ''rural Kentucky kids,'' including athletes, are as knowledgeable about where to obtain drugs outside the campus medical community as their counterparts from urban areas.
Others who are deeply involved in collegiate sports say they see little, if any, evidence of drug involvement among athletes.
James Frank, commissioner of the Southwestern Athletic Conference, says he knows of ''not one'' drug problem in the group of schools he represents, which includes such top competitors as Grambling, Jackson State, and Texas Southern. ''I see no evidence,'' he says. ''I hear no reports of any.''
Says Rick Taylor, head football coach at Boston University, ''I may be an ostrich with my head in the sand, but I just don't see it.'' And this is despite the fact that ''anybody who goes to school in Boston has access to them.''
Grant Teaff, head football coach at Baylor University and chairman of the ethics committee of the American Football Coaches Association, thinks researchers for the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) ''will be surprised that it's not going to be as rampant as some have predicted or projected.'' The NCAA is sponsoring a $25,000 study of drug use for which sampling is scheduled to begin soon.
Yet Teaff agrees it is significant that the coaches' association scheduled a lecture by a representative of the National Football League entitled ''What We Should Know About in Dealing with Drugs'' at its convention here last month. That talk dealt largely with so-called ''recreational'' drugs, such as cocaine, rather than with steroids. But it fed concern that players who go on to the pro ranks and fall into the use of cocaine may return to campus and introduce it to former teammates.
While they wait for a comprehensive national drug-testing program to be developed, some colleges have begun testing their own athletes. Among these are Arkansas, Auburn, Georgia, Georgia Tech, and Kentucky. Kansas State also recently announced a similar program, effective this spring. And the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, composed generally of smaller schools than those in the NCAA, will begin testing for drug use at its tournaments in the spring.
One source who is familiar with these programs cautions, however, that, ''if you ask them whether they're including steroids, most of them will say no.''
As for the NCAA, executive director Walter Byers says there is so little time before the association's basketball, wrestling, baseball, track, and other championship tournaments that ''I'm going to predict we will not go into a selective mandatory testing program this spring.''
In recent years, the NCAA has conducted small pilot studies among male athletes at member schools, which, Mr. Byers says, have disclosed ''very little use.'' The NCAA has elected not to take part in the US Olympic Committee's new comprehensive drug-testing program, he says, because ''our people are saying, essentially, we ought to do our own.''
The Olympic Committee will spend in the area of $2 million to test 1,500 athletes. There are roughly 240,000 competitors in NCAA-sanctioned sports. To provide a reliable test for each of them would keep a laboratory busy 10 hours a day, 52 weeks a year, and would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, an NCAA source asserts.
Finally, there are also legal questions implicit in any program that compels college students to submit to tests for drug use. These include one's right to bodily privacy and the constitutional protection against self-incrimination. Still another legal issue is what redress an athlete has if he or she is penalized because of a test result that proves to be wrong.
Assuming that all other obstacles can be overcome, federal officials with long experience in drug enforcement warn that schools should not approach testing with the idea of entrapping athletes who have used drugs. A better approach, they say, is to assure the athletes and their parents ahead of time that the program is intended to help overcome what may be both a personal and an institutional problem.
Meanwhile, Baylor's Grant Teaff thinks coaches have a role to play, apart from the tests. ''If we really care for the kids, (and) we want to look out for them physically, mentally, and spiritually,'' he says, ''I think we need to educate them (about drug use) as much as possible.''