Fault Lines
16 January 2019
march madness

March Madness vs. The Nanny State

March 14, 2017 (Fault Lines) — This is an important week. Starting tonight, millions of otherwise law-abiding people engage in criminal activity. The NCAA tournament is here and that means it’s bracket time.

Typically, you fill out a sports bracket and give some money to somebody. It can be a little family bracket, an office pool, or a nationwide competition with hundreds or thousands of other people. But the common feature is you kick in a little money to the pool and the pool kicks back a winning pot to the person who most accurately predicted which teams are most successful in the tournament.

That pot can be little if you are doing it with your family, or bigger if it’s an office pool, or huge if it’s a national betting pool. In South Carolina, you cannot do the following:

Record or register bets or wagers or sells pools or makes books, with or without writing, upon the result of any (a) trial or contest of skill, speed or power of endurance of man or beast…

In case it isn’t clear, that means no bracket pool.

Most states have some form or another of a law that says you can’t have fun place a wager on the outcome of a sporting event. You can look up your state here, but chances are if you don’t live in Nevada you can’t legally play a bracket. The feds aren’t real cool about gambling, either.

Because the NCAA tournament is one of the most watched, and most bet on, events in the sporting world, it draws fire from both sides on the issue of sports betting.

How significant is March Madness? It’s big enough that both proponents and opponents of gambling point to it as an important symbol of their respective causes.

On the basis of pure popularity, there probably aren’t going to be a lot of anti-gambling voices heard between now and the championship game on April 3.

The American Gaming Association, an advocate for nationwide sports wagering, estimates that the public will bet $9.2 billion on the NCAA Tournament through office pools, Nevada sports books, illicit offshore sites and illegal bookies. The association expects 70 million brackets to be filled out — more than the number of votes cast for Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton or any other candidate on the November ballot.

But there are some voices of dissent. There are plenty of people who can’t get enough of a good thing. Problem gambling, where someone who can’t control the excitement of the wager and ruins it for the rest of us, is also front and center during March Madness.

Arnie Wexler, a problem gambling expert who recently published the book “All Bets Are Off: Losers, Liars and Recovery from Gambling Addiction” and manages the 1-888-LASTBET (427-8238) toll-free help line, said college students start down the road to compulsive gambling by making their first bet on March Madness games.

“According to a Harvard study a few years ago, 4.67 percent of young people have a gambling problem,” Wexler said. “Experts tell us that the earlier a person starts to gamble, the greater the risk of them becoming a compulsive gambler.”

Problem gamblers mean no gamblers. Kind of like Mark Twain’s censorship quote. Sure, maybe he didn’t actually say it, but it’s just too good of an example not to use here.

Censorship is telling a man he can’t have a steak just because a baby can’t chew it.

Even Fox News, not normally a staunch defender of individual liberty on moral issues, thinks the prohibition on sports betting is outdated. Michelle Minton’s column this week discusses the many advantages of legalizing sports betting, not the least of which is the incredible revenue the government could realize. They tax everything anyway, right? Maybe cut down on the gambling investigations and start making a little money off the events everybody loves to love.

As with all forms of prohibition, PASPA [the federal Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act] did not stop the activity it sought to ban—sports gambling.

It’s probably not even worth going back in to the argument that prohibition doesn’t really prohibit anything, it just makes it more profitable. If you haven’t figured that out by now, you probably aren’t thoughtful enough to ever be convinced. Minton recognizes the common problem with telling grownups what they can and can’t do.

Despite the fears of some lawmakers nearly three decades ago, it is clear now that the sports gambling prohibition is not only useless but counterproductive. The federal government’s role in our lives should not be to protect the reputation of sporting events, dictate to adults how they spend their own money, or tell states how they may or may not regulate certain kinds of economic activity within their own borders.

Your personal risk when you turn in that bracket is probably pretty small. But it’s also probably still there, for now. While the government may not be concerned with your family pool, it still takes an interest in your activities.

What’s not clear is what purpose the various gambling prohibitions are serving. It’s a little hard to argue that games of chance are inherently evil, since the government itself runs a vast pool of lottery contests, often with billions at stake. That argument makes the whole “problem gambling” idea a little hard to stomach, too. The government’s profits don’t make a problem not a problem.

So have fun with your bracket. 70 million other people will. Pick a few upsets, win a little money. But keep in mind that the fun you are having for a little spending money is actually illegal. Probably under both federal and state law. And regardless of whether you personally stand any chance of becoming a degenerate gambling addict.

Next time you hear someone start bitching about the evils of sports betting, tell them how your coworker or wife or kid or grandpa won it all in the bracket challenge. And they seem just fine.

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  • Chris Seaton
    14 March 2017 at 1:23 pm - Reply

    Criminalizing this type of behavior, and enforcing its criminality, does no one good.

    Thanks for pointing out this glaring waste of law enforcement time and money. It’s something many need to understand, yet few do.