I should confess first. I'm 40 years old and I'm from a corn town of 1,300 people in central Illinois. So time and geography, along with absolute devotion to the art of making the double play from the shortstop side, guaranteed I would grow up knowing nothing of the real world. I didn't dig Elvis, as everybody put it then. I'm always 10 years behind the hot items of the day. I've never been inside a Hula-Hoop, never seen the Rolling Stones and never bet with a bookie.

Old-fashioned me. Left behind by life's merry-go-round. The only middle-aged man in America who thinks it's wrong to bet on ball games. Lucky for me I can beat my wife at Scrabble, or I wouldn't have any fun at all.

Everybody thinks it's okay to get down a bet with the neighborhood bookie. Gambling is no big deal. Bookies are honest folk, businessmen who treat you better than the state does with its lotteries and horse racing. That's what everybody says. Uncle Sam did a study once that showed illegal betting subsidizes organized crime. What does Uncle Sam know? Everybody knows betting on ball games is kids' stuff.

So everybody who's up to date is a bettor.

And we wonder why there's a basketball scandal.

Basketball scandals are nothing new. Thirty years ago, 20 years ago, last year -- basketball scandals.

Who should we blame for them?

You can't blame the bettors. The scandal, after all, is not that everybody is gambling. Gambling is okay. Everybody tells us so. The television networks and the newspapers tell us so by hiring gambling touts. So you can't blame the people who bet. It's the up-to-date thing to do.

You can't blame the colleges for the scandals, either. It would be easy to do. The colleges have sold out, and there isn't any pretense at education. College basketball is now professional, not educational. Colleges sell tickets to build arenas, which they can fill only with winning teams. To win, you need good players. Good players -- not necessarily bright young men, not necessarily men you'd want in your living room. Just men who play a good game.

The president of the University of Georgia, Fred Davison, says the NCAA's entrance requirement rule -- a 2.0 high school grade average -- is meaningless. "Let's face it, at some places getting a 2.0 means you stayed out of jail for four years," he said.

Under financial pressure to win, colleges can't be blamed if they bend the rules to get a player.

And if that player happens to bend rules in a basketball game, you can't blame him, either.

After all, life is tough, and you have to get your $2,500 for that TV set any way you can.

The Boston College player convicted this week of fixing games used some money he allegedly received for point shaving to buy a TV set for his girlfriend.

Maybe he thought he wasn't getting his fair share of the profits produced by his work for the college. So he bent a rule -- all right, he broke a law against conspiring to fix games, but it's against the law to bet on games and everybody ignores that law, so let's just say he bent a rule -- to get more money.

Here I want to tell you a story without names. It came to me from a big-time college basketball coach. He won't go on the record, so maybe the story isn't true, but the story indicts him as well as a player, so I think it is true. He doesn't want his name used because he's afraid he might wind up killed. That's what he said: "If I ever wind up killed, you'll know who did it."

His big-time team lost a very important game it was supposed to win.

It lost primarily because its best outside shooter went 0 for 10 against a 2-3 zone.

"The kid was owned by Tom Tammany," the coach said, to make up a name for a sugar daddy who paid apartment rents and supplied money for the coach's players. "I should have run Tammany off. Bobby Knight would have. But I didn't. And I always wondered about that game. Did Tammany have a big bet on it? Did he tell my best shooter to miss all night?"

Once a kid believes gambling is all right, the seed is planted.

Once the seed is planted, it grows as college recruiters nurture it with under-the-table deals.

Once it grows, the kid can decide that if he has bent rules already by taking the shady money, why not bend another rule and make more money?

Of course, everybody says it's no big deal to bend rules.

Even a judge in Albuquerque, N.M., says it's no big deal.

Judge Phillip Baiamonte this week refused to order former New Mexico basketball coach Norm Ellenberger to repay $6,000 to the state. Ellenberger was convicted last summer of misappropriating the state's money while coaching the state university's precious Lobos.

The judge disapproved of the prosecution. He said it was clear that the coach's job was to win, and the coach had won. So what's the big deal about $6,000 misused? A jury convicted the coach. The judge promptly gave Ellenberger the lightest possible sentence, unsupervised probation.

The judge this week explained why he didn't order the coach to repay that $6,000.

"Let me get back to the business of trying real criminal cases," Baiamonte said. " . . . This is akin to someone taking $6,000 in furniture from my house, but on the way out leaving $1.2 million on the kitchen table. I don't think I'd be too put out about it."

The moral is, if you're breaking the law but you give the money to the right guy, then you're okay.

Seems to me the Boston College guys made a big mistake by not asking to be tried in front of Judge Baiamonte.

He's a judge who's up to date.