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The greening of an All-American, and other cultural distortions

IT'S taken nearly a week. But we're ready - well, almost ready - to believe that Steve Young, a nice young fellow who has been throwing the football in a neat spiral for Brigham Young University, is going to be paid $40 million to keep up the good work with the Los Angeles Express of the United States Football League.

This is what's known as really turning professional.

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Who says supply-side economics isn't working? Not Steve Young. In the understatement of the current fiscal year, the world's richest quarterback declared, ''I feel this was the best decision for me.''

Never mind the $40 million if it makes your head spin. Just think of the $2.5 million bonus Steve received merely for agreeing to be paid $40 million. Then think of Johnny Carson, sweating away night after night for six months before his piddling salary adds up to $2.5 million. What will that comparison do to his golf swing?

Marlon Brando had to mumble for who-knows-how-long to earn his $2.5 million as Superman's father. Still, $2.5 million ranks as the biggest fee ever paid an actor for piecework. And now a fuzzy-cheeked boy who wasn't even born when Marlon mumbled, ''I coulda been a contender,'' in ''On the Waterfront,'' gets the same fee as our noblest proletarian-impersonator simply for signing his autograph on the dotted line before a roomful of lawyers. It's enough to drive a method actor into a good old-fashioned scream.

We haven't even mentioned the chagrin of other sports millionaires. ''Magic'' Johnson must feel all the air slowly leaking out of his basketball. His contract calls for a paltry $25 million. Poor Wayne Gretzky! At $21 million, he's practically a half-price sale.

Only Muhammad Ali, who is reported to have earned $69 million, the hard way, can hold up his sporting head in Steve Young's presence.

We don't really want to get into how long, and how handsomely, the entire faculty of Brigham Young University could live on $40 million. We're not about to deliver one of those sermons on ''When will this country get its values straight?'' - though be warned, we're saving a few notes for future reference.

What fascinates us about the Steve Young saga - what leaves us gasping - is the way things seem to be getting wildly out of scale. A brief half-century ago Babe Ruth made $80,000 a year - 4 percent of what Dave Winfield makes today. But this distortion of scale involves far more than sports and money.

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A quaint 50 years ago the Big City was the scale that dwarfed one. Millions of people living in the shadow of buildings a quarter of a mile high! How insignificant could one feel? As for a Big Bang, that was what came from a couple of sticks of dynamite.

Now we live, by comparison, in a mega-world where a $40-million football player is only a symptom. In this mega-world a truly mega-defense budget builds truly mega-weapons, not to speak of a truly mega-deficit.

Every day we speak casually in the trillions. With every rocket-launching we speak lightly of light-years. Planet earth has indeed become a spaceship. Our heads are in the stars, calculating these new mega-quantities of everything on a computer. We inhabit a compounding never-never land, to be represented only by off-the-board equations.

And what does this do to the scale of the human?

The ancients were made thoughtful by the mountains that surrounded them. Even a tall tree could do it. Mont Blanc loomed so grand that medieval theologians used it as a proof of God.

But it is we who have made our mega-world, stockpiled by nuclear bombs and $ 40 million athletes. And the mega-scale we have created only seems to diminish us - without reminding us of God.

Some days when figures like $40 million - or billion, or trillion - flash across our screens, we sense how remote, how dangerously indifferent, living out of scale can make us feel. We ought to be concerned about such emotions, or non-emotions. They are the one thing we cannot measure.

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