Had it been a simple care case of Don King, the fight promoter, chiseling the American public, no one would much care. Anyone who loses money to a guy as slick as King deserves it. Nor would a plaintive sigh be released if Bill Riordan, the tennis promoter, conned us. He was Jimmy Connors' money man, a relationship that should have been warning to take a nice forehand grip on our wallest.

We were deceived, however, by men businesses are required to operate in the public interest. These men run the television sports departments of the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) and the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS). Television networks operate over air waves that, by law, belong to the public. The networks, then are answerable to the public for their operations.

Face to face with a Don King or a Bill Riordan, we expect to be conned. We have only ourselves to blame if we put down $10, say, for a last-row ticket to see Ali against Evangelista. We mark it down to melancholy experience.

When the television giants, ABC or CBS, speak to us, we have the law on our side. They cannot con us. If they do, they must answer to federal authorities. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is our protector. What we see to TV, we can believe. The law says so.

Too bad the big shots in ABC and CBS sports didn't know that.

They lied to us.

At ABC, they said Don King's fights were the real things, real matches of real contenders.

They lied.

At CBS, they said Bill Riordan's tennis matches were winner-take-all events, the winner taking $250,000.

They lied.

Oh, they deny lying.

The big shots came to Congress two days this week and said they didn't lie.

They'd been sloppy, they said.

Careless.

But they never lied to us, they said.

ABC two months ago released the results of an in-house investigation into Kings U.S. Boxing Championships. There had been news stories that fighters' rankings were falsified and that fighters bought their way into the tournament. The investigation confirmed the news stories, saying that while the tournament was shot through with unethical conduct, there was nothing criminally illegal.

The crime was against the viewers' good faith. For so long now, ABC has paid Howard Cosell to remind us of his integrity, to impress us with his constant bleating that he "tells it like it is." Yet there was Cosell and ABC, on public air waves, selling us the U.S. Boxing Championships, as rotten a piece of sports action as any two-bit con man ever dreamed up.

Oh, sure, ABC and Howard Cosell say they didn't know all that.

Probably not.

ABC didn't want to know.

It asked a man, and eventually paid him $10,000 for his work, to do a scounting report of sorts on every fighter in the purported tournament. This man, Alex Wallau, apparently did a wonderful job. Of 56 fighters in the ABC-sponsored tournament, Wallau said 31 were unqualified in degrees varying from "king of the stiffs" to "disgraces."

In December, 1976, more than a month before the first televised tournament bout, Wallau put his detailed report on the desk of an ABC vice president. The report's cover letter said the network, if it went ahead with the King-produced show, faced "potential damage."

The ABC vice president. jim Spence, told Congress the other day that he never read Wallau's report.

Oh, sure he had a good reason. This network vice president, who probably is paid more money than half your neighborhood, said he read the cover letter. But he looked at the report and said it was really long. So he didn't read it.

And he didn't pay any attention to the warning in the cover letter. He said that was because Ring magazine said the fighters were all right. We are left to wonder why ABC hired Wallau in the first place if only the Ring ratings mattered. But that's show biz, as they say.

So, anyway, the whole thing came flying apart after three shows. By then, Wallau had been taken off the show's production staff because he couldn't get along with Cosell. And in April, with the tournament dead, Wallau went to the ABC brass and asked to be paid for his work on the ratings. That's when he got the $10,000.

Now, suspicious folks may think Wallau was paid that money to keep his mouth shut about how ABC had ignored his warnings. Suspicious folks might think ABC didn't want the public to know that it ignored the possibility of deception by a slick fight promoter. Suspicious folks might think ABC figured it could get away with it all because, you know, what does the viewer know, anyway?He'll take what we give him and be thankful.

Arrogance. That's the work that fits here. And just as ABC arrogantly avoided the truth, so did CBS in its promotion of four Jimmy Connors tennis matches as "winner take all" events.

The CBS sports boss, Bob Wussler, told Congress the other day that his network had been sloppy in its handling of the tennis matches. CBS was sorry, he said, and it wouldn't happen again because new procedures are being taken and, you see, congressmen, these tennis matches were put on when CBS was changing personnel and sports were exploding everywhere and . . .

Who cares about that, CBS? Since when is incompetence an excuse for deception? All the confessions of incompetence amount to nothing against the single truth that CBS didn't care how its viewers interpreted the phrase "winner take all." To CBS, it meant the winner took all of a $250,000 prize - and also was paid more than $100,000 for simply appearing, as was the loser. Yes, the loser was paid handsomely.

Yet, CBS advertised the matches as "winner take all," and chances are 99 per cent of the viewers figured that meant a cutthroat competition with loser hitchhiking home. To the ordinary viewer, "winner take all" has a definite meaning. To Bob Wussler, the CBS sports boss, "winner take all" meant absolutely nothing.

Incredibly, Wussler told that to Congress the other day. The phrase, he said, "became almost a colloquialism, an expression. Quite frankly, it went right by me."

Arrogance, CBS didn't care enough to be sure its viewers knew the match was not a true winner-take-all event. While national advertising featured the unique concept of such a match, the loser's appearance money was never advertised. Wussler comic efforts in which men sent memos that went unread, made phone calls from across the country - to stop the winner-take-all references. But CBS simply didn't care enough to do the necessary things to stop the winner-take-all talk.

By its unwillingness to move strongly to stop the deception. CBS suggests that it liked Bill Riordan's winner-take-all con game. The idea of a tennis match for $250,000 or nothing must have been so tempting to the videots they let slip their obligation to tell the viewers the whole truth.

But why? Did they forget to tell the whole truth? Was a billion-dollar corporation that sloppy? Or did they just ignore the whole truth because a half-truth sounded better on the air?