STEROIDS ARE A HOT item this fall. Ben Johnson runs to gold and disgrace with a body built by Stanozolol . . . The San Francisco Examiner reports that 40 percent to 70 percent of pro football players use steroids . . . USA Today runs a Steroid Hotline . . . Sports Illustrated arrives with a first-person article that chronicles the pathetic story of a former college football player's steroid use . . .

It has become increasingly apparent that steroid use in sport is not going to go away by itself. In the past couple of months alone there have been revelations of steroid use in weightlifting, swimming, track and field and football. It also has become increasingly clear, through research and confessionals like the one in SI, just how devastating the long-term effects of steroid use can be (liver damage, increased risk of stroke and heart attacks, cancer, sex-related problems, aggression, anxiety . . .).Perhaps no group of athletes abuses steroids more than football players, who are caught in a vicious circle - one player thinks he must take 'roids to be bigger and stronger to compete with the other guy he believes is taking steroids and is because he's thinking the same thing . . . The only way to end this cycle is to ensure everyone is clean at once, through testing.

In the college ranks, the battle against steroid use already has begun. Among the Utah schools, BYU, Utah State and the University of Utah test for steroids (and street drugs) randomly; Weber State doesn't test for steroids (but does for street drugs), because of the considerable expense of such tests. Like the other Utah schools, Weber is educating its players about the dangers of steroid use, with videos, slides, counseling, but head coach Mike Price is realistic.

"I'm sure we have someone on our team who uses steroids," he says. "I'm just glad (the NCAA) will test for it in the (1-AA) playoffs."

In the meantime, Price must depend on his own observations. Once he confronted a player he suspected of steroid use, but the player denied it. Later, when Weber officials were cleaning out the player's dorm room, they found evidence of steroid use. Price gave the player a choice: Weber State or steroids. He left school.

Price is not the only Utah coach who has been forced to face up to steroid use among his players. Utah State head coach Chuck Shelton says two of his players have tested positive for steroids in the two years the school has conducted the tests. Shelton allows a second chance. If the second test is clean _ or shows signs that the steroid use has stopped (it takes time to rid the system completely of steroids) _ the player is retained; if not, he's dismissed from the team. Both players passed the second test, but they will be included in each of USU's otherwise random tests for the rest of their careers.

In retrospect, Shelton passes on some interesting observations: "In both cases there was a decline in strength and physical ability, but both of them eventually returned to the same level through acceptable methods. It took one player four months and the other six months."

All of which is consistent with what Utah head coach Jim Fassel was saying the other day: "Steroids are a substitute for hard work."

Fassel won't say, for the record, just what the results of Utah's steroid tests have produced, except, "Several years ago we had suspicions about several players, but we took care of the problem and we haven't really had any problem since then." He also adds, "This is not to assume that random testing is going to catch everyone."

BYU coach LaVell Edwards is equally mum about his team's test results, but he does say, "Steroids are something we've had to deal with." According to Edwards, BYU not only tests for steroids, but it allows no second chances. "We don't have any choice with street drugs, and we feel steroids are at least as bad," he explains.

Edwards and the rest of the Utah coaches reflect a change that has taken place among college coaches, whose attitude toward steroids has grown from one of something approaching apathy and ignorance to one of vigilance. "For a lot of years, no one knew anything about it," says Edwards.

"I think as coaches who talk about being bigger, strong and faster, we were part of the original problem 10 years ago," says Shelton. "It came from not really knowing what the affects of steroid use would be."

And now that the coaches are better enlightened, they're passing it on to the players. Some coaches believe they are winning converts.

"I've detected a change in attitude in just the last year," says Price. "The kids are saying, Hey, this isn't good." Articles like the one in SI really help. I'll bet half our kids read that story on our (game) trip last week. They were all talking about it."

"It's like when I played football a lot of players smoked (cigarettes)," says Edwards. "The threat of getting kicked off the team was no deterent. Now when I coach all-star games, I never see anyone smoking. It's education."

Indeed, the threat of punishment isn't always a deterent, as the proliferation of street drugs has attested. And tests can be beaten. "Athletes are risk-takers," says Fassel. Edwards agrees: "There are guys who would drink goat's milk standing on their heads if you told them it would make them better." Says Shelton, "It's difficult for players to look down the road."

Unless it's just far enough to see the riches of the NFL, which until Tuesday's announcement had never bothered to test for steroids.

In the end, education might be the only answer to ridding sport completely of steroids. Players must actually believe in the harm and inherent wrong of drug use. "You have to talk about life with these players," says Fassel. "There are no short cuts to success. At some point in your life it will catch up with you."