Point-shaving: Not as taboo as you'd think

If you receive ESPN the Magazine, you've already seen this week's annual college hoops preview issue [Insider]. Sandwiched in among an excellent Duke feature and some fun stuff on the loudest college hoops arenas in the country is the Mag's always-interesting college hoops survey. The survey got 170 college basketball players to give answers on everything from their views on the nation's best player (Kyle Singler) to whether or not they fill out an NCAA tournament bracket in March (41 percent do; 59 percent don't).

The most interesting question came late in the survey, when the Mag folks asked players whether, when faced with a 40-point blowout, they would consider shaving points for money. The answer is slightly disconcerting:

If you had a noncon game you knew you'd win by 40, how much would it take for you to shave points and win by 35?

The NCAA's gambling task force will be glad that 75.3 percent of players say they'd never shave points. "Too risky," says a potential All-America. "Your name is attached to that forever." The scary news for the NCAA? One in four players has a specific price (average: $491K), with 4.8 percent admitting they'd lop off a few points for $10,000 or less. "I shouldn't even be answering this," says one standout. "But if I knew we'd win by that much, I'd do it for $5,000."

The results aren't terrible. After all, 75.3 percent of players presented with that rather morally harmless scenario -- lopping a few points off a non-conference laugher -- still said they wouldn't ever shave points. That's a reasonably high number, all things considered.

It's that other 25 percent that ought to worry you. Why? Because it only takes one rogue player to give the entire sport a bad name, and if the Mag's findings are reflective of the general attitude in college hoops, there is more than one player who'd be willing to shave points. In fact, there's one in every four. (And that doesn't account for a variety of poll-related pitfalls, such as the possibility that many players might have been saying what they thought made them sound good, rather than what they really believed. If anything, this number could be higher.)

There's even a small cadre of players that would be willing to take less than $10,000 to shave points, which, guys, I know that's a lot of money, but it's not nearly enough to jeopardize your amateur basketball career over. Please, if you're going to shave points, negotiate a fair earning. (KIDDING. Don't shave points. I shouldn't have to make that disclaimer, but you know, just in case.)

What does this data say about college hoops? One argument worth making is about amateurism, and the ways that the vast pools of money sloshing around in college hoops -- whether it's on the AAU circuit or in Las Vegas sports books -- serve as temptation for players that are otherwise not compensated (besides scholarship and room and board, obviously) for their talents. That's one argument, I suppose.

Another belongs to College Hoops Journal's Matt Norlander, who thinks it means the next big point-shaving scandal is out there somewhere:

There are too many teams, too many lines and enough money to be made now. It only makes, well, sense that it would be happening. I don’t think games are being thrown; it’s just a matter of dealing with double-digit point spreads, really. If the question can be asked, and it’s going to be answered with 25 percent anonymously admitting, “Yes, I’d fudge the numbers,” then the numbers are being fudged somewhere.

[...] ESPN’s fleeting question brought about an eye-opening response. And if gambling sharks weren’t on the scent before, they are now. It’s not hard to track down 24.7 percent of a willing workforce. I don’t know how or when the next huge point-shaving scandal will get exposed, but I do believe it’s out there, and this number scares me to a state of mind I wasn’t at before.

I'm not sure I agree with the idea that the Mag's question is going to encourage shady gambling types to approach college basketball players in greater numbers than before; I doubt potential corruptors were sitting out there, waiting to hear whether a certain percentage of college basketball players were open to maybe shaving some points.

But the general sentiment is warranted. The idea is almost foreign: Not only is a percentage of college hoopsters willing to shave points, a tiny fraction of that percentage could theoretically already be doing so. It might be zero. It might be a handful. Whatever the number is -- or isn't, let's hope -- it's certifiably frightening.