Some political pundit once wrote that a liberal is a person who "would much rather lose gracefully and emotionally than win practically." I can think of no better definition of the typical sports bettor.

This is not to say, of course, that all sports bettors are liberals. Most professional athletes tend to be right of center politically -- at least in matters of fiscal policy. He (or she) does not bet on organized pro sports contests. But among themselves, they are some of the world's great con artists.

I've played golf with Willie Mays many times and he just cannot play 18 holes without "a friendly Nassau -- say $10" on the side. One time we wound up in the bar afterward for a couple of beers. Since I had lost $15 to him on the golf course, I tried to get it back by offering to bet on the football game on the tube.

"No way, man," he replied, "I got no control over that game. The ref could make a bad call or something and screw up the point spread. I'll let you get even tomorrow." We played the next day and I fared a little better -- I lost only $10.

Looking back, I realize that Willie was just exercising fiscal restraint. He was cold-blooded about his decision not to bet on the football game. After all, why should a legend in pro sports bet on a pro football game when he plays golf with a four handicap?

The pro athlete seldom puts up his money either to a local bookie or at the legal betting parlors in Nevada. You have heard of athletes making bad investments, getting caught for tax evasion, giving money away or spending all of it. But seldom does one wager his money away.

Another reason pro athletes don't bet on sports contests is because they are not emotionally involved. Their entire being is usually wrapped up in what they do, not what Terry Bradshaw, Harvey Martin or the referee might do.

Besides, as a recent issue of Playboy magazine noted, the overwhelming majority of sports bettors follow their hearts rather than their heads. And since the point spreads and odds are determined by the amounts of money wagered rather than a team's expertise, a pro athlete figures, "Why risk money I had to sweat for on the outcome of a game that doesn't follow the laws of probability?"

Also in the back of every pro athlete's mind is the Pete Rozelle-Joe Namath affair. Namath had to divest himself of Bachelor's III, his former nightclub in New York City's upper East Side. Rozelle said some of his best customers were reputed organized crime figures.

Bowie Kuhn, the commissioner of major league baseball, recently told my erstwhile golfing adversary, Mays, that he must sever his ties to the New York Mets if he took a job with a New Jersey hotel casino.

Neither Rozelle nor Kuhn had any other option. These two examples should be deterrent enough for all but the most foolhardy pro athlete.

But the gambling instinct runs deep in every man. Pope John Paul II even moved up the time of his televised investiture as Bishop of Rome so that the Italian public would not miss a heavily wagered soccer game.

All men worth their salt think they are great lovers and great gamblers. Whether at a friend's house for a Friday night poker game or sitting at the baccarat table in Las Vegas in a tuxedo with a stack of rectangular chips (they're worth more than the round ones), we all show off.

If we win, we strut around as if to demonstrate our genetic superiority over the next guy who is now viewed as a sucker. But the only people winning day-in, day-out are the bookies and the casinos.

There was one glaring exception, howver. Five years ago in Great Britain a betting shop was allowed to operate during a tennis tournament on the grounds of the Nottingham Lawn Tennis Club.

The players themselves took a look at the odds offered on the matches and proceeded to make a killing. In this instance, the bookmakers had no idea what the correct odds should have been.

The wagering continued at Wimbledon for two more weeks. I will never forget a very well-known backgammon player who got 4-to-1 odds picking Marty Riessen and Mike Estep to win their matches in a double.

He bet 5,000 pounds and Riessen promptly won his 2 o'clock match. My friend then went to the roof of the players' tea room to watch Estep on court No. 3. The match went five sets. At 6-5 in the fifth set, Estep was serving to win. He then lost that game and the next two to lose the match.

My friend stopped betting after that. The Association of Tennis Professionals, the tennis players union, then passed a tough rule outlawing betting on tennis matches by its members.

That rule alone would have kept Bobby Riggs from joining us today. In 1939, Riggs sailed to London and upon his arrival he went straight to a bookmaker in the Mayfair district. Without asking for the odds, he bet on himself to win the men's singles, the men's doubles, the mixed doubles, and combinations thereof -- six different bets.

Did he win? Of course -- three titles, six bets.