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The shadow of doubt

Here's a thrilling new parlor game we just hashed out. Let's call it "Find the One Point Four."

Ground rules: First, set aside the more than one-third of male athletes who admitted in a recent survey to violating NCAA rules by gambling on either college or pro sports. Disturbing, perhaps, but not precisely shocking.

Second, winnow out the 2.3 percent of NCAA Division I football players -- of those who responded to this survey, that is -- who admitted they'd been asked at some point to influence the outcome of a game because of gambling debts. The number may sound high, and in fact it may ultimately prove to be low, but it's not the final number.

Nope, the final number, for purposes of outright concern and barely controlled incredulity, is 1.4 -- the percentage of those D-1 footballers who admitted they actually did change their performances to affect the games in which they were playing.

Is that your 1.4, Big Ten? How 'bout you, Big 12? You figure maybe all the bad seeds are in the Big East, which makes it easier for, say, the Pac-10 to assume its players are clean and the rest of the country is the one with the problem?

Shoot, why not just lay it all off on the poor saps in D-III? They're the ones who play with no scholarship and no (nudge nudge, wink wink) "pizza money" magically appearing in ye olde mailboxe on a weekly basis. You sure these respondents weren't really dead-broke D-III jocks pretending to be the voices of their Escalade-driving Division I brethren?

You see the root of the evil here. It isn't that the world is suddenly being confronted with evidence that people screw up, nor that young athletes are no more immune to screwing up than the rest of us. That's old news.

The root of the evil in this survey, instead, lies in the mystery surrounding that One Point Four. Because the number, no matter how relatively small in the Great Sampling of Life it may be, matters one hell of a lot if it happens to land in your backyard.

It's hard to know what the NCAA expected the sports world to make of this survey, the National Study on Collegiate Sports Wagering and Associated Health Risks. (Tops on the health-risk front: broken kneecaps.) The process incorporated 21,000 athletes in all divisions, with the particular sports at any one school chosen randomly via computer to be included in the survey.

In other words, Michigan's football team might have been questioned or it might not have. Stanford's tennis players may have been asked to respond rather than its basketball teams. There's no telling whom they might be talking to at Colorado, or Miami, or St. Norbert's College, or Grambling, or anywhere.

Beyond that, respondents were guaranteed anonymity, yet the surveyers had to dump a few hundred of the completed forms all the same when they deemed them to be incredible (made-up stories, for those scoring at home).

And beyond the beyond, "I think it's fair to say these are conservative estimates, based on the fact that we are asking about behavior that could get folks into trouble," NCAA research director Todd Petr told the Indianapolis Star-News.

So the actual number is, what, higher? Lower? Higher in general but lower in the point-shaving extremes that make for such compelling HBO specials? And while we're on the subject, is there any such thing as a palatable level of gambling-related game-altering when it comes to college sports?

The survey provides no clear answers on those fronts -- and not even the NCAA can figure what to do about it, other than to appoint a committee, chaired by Notre Dame president Rev. Edward S. Malloy, to recommend possible rules changes and behavior modifiers. Of course, there isn't a lot of gray area here in the first place: Any college athlete who bets on any sport the NCAA plays, no matter what level of the sport he bets on, is in violation of the association's rules. That goes for everything from the bookie on the phone to the Rick Neuheisel Memorial March Madness Pool.

Still, it goes on, and on, and on. NCAA president Myles Brand says he doesn't yet see evidence that the integrity of Division I football has been "compromised" -- and how can he, based upon this survey? The respondents only indicate they tried to alter their performances to affect the outcomes. There's no telling whether they actually succeeded.

But when Brand says the report of fairly widespread gambling among college athletes is "disturbing," he isn't whistling in the dark. Understand: Game-altering isn't often about trying to make a winner out of a team that by rights ought to lose. It is far more often about causing a 10-point favorite to win by only seven.

That is far more subtle, like that seemingly meaningless basket at the end of the game that covers the spread. It is far more difficult to pinpoint, like the offensive lineman who suddenly gets beat for a quick sack as his team is marching for a fourth-quarter tack-on score. And multitudes more insidious -- but only if it's real.

You'd have to live in Myopia to presume even for a moment that the NCAA could somehow remain immune from a gambling virus that long ago infected a sporting nation -- and for the record, golfers, wrestlers and lacrosse players were the most likely to bet on games, aside from the aforementioned gridders.

Gamblers lose. Losers owe money. Debts have to be paid. You know the drill.

But are we talking about a significant problem here? A growing problem? These things, the NCAA doesn't really know. All that Brand and the association's other leaders know is that there's a number out there that demands attention immediately, as fans around the country wonder just exactly where that One Point Four might bubble to the surface.

Mark Kreidler is a columnist with the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com