A Bid to Legalize Betting on NCAA Basketball

The Badgers were lumbering. By the end of the first half, the University of Wisconsin had dropped 18 points behind Texas A&M Corpus Christi, as day two of the NCAA college basketball tournament got underway. But then, the pride of Madison got rolling. Kammronn Taylor poured in 24 points in the second half. Big 10 Player of the Year Alando Tucker finished with 23. The Badgers, and their legions of beer-swilling, ball-crazy cheesehead fans, lived to fight another day.

For the fans, it was more than a victory; the win kept alive their hopes of cleaning up in one of the countless office pools they'd invested in, along with the rest of the country. March Madness is prime betting time—even though, unbeknownst to many hoop fans, wagering on games is illegal in nearly half the states. The laws often go unenforced, the cops typically having more important things to do than to crack down on small groups of small fry. But NCAA betting pots can climb into the five-figure range and beyond—and the law is still the law.

And the pool of potential lawbreakers is substantial. Twenty-seven percent of employees admit to betting in office NCAA pools, according to a 2007 survey by the career-information site Vault.com (OK, admittedly, the sample size was only 266 people, but still). The FBI estimates that almost $2.5 billion will be placed on illegal bets during this year's tournament (that number includes online gambling sites and bookies, in addition to office pools). In contrast, the bureau expects only $80 million to $90 million in bets will be placed legally with sports book operators in Nevada.

In Badger country, Democratic state Sen. Jeff Plale wants to do something about the legal taint. He's bothered by the notion that a cube dweller tossing a sawbuck into the kitty in support of his team could be committing a class B misdemeanor, punishable by a maximum fine of $1,000 or imprisonment for up to 90 days under state law. So Plale has introduced a bill decriminalizing small sports pools. His goal: to get it passed and signed by the governor by the time next year's installment of March Madness rolls around. "Every year around this time the majority of Wisconsin is a potential felon," Plale says. "I've maybe even fallen into that category once or twice, and it certainly doesn't rise to the level of criminal activity."

Plale, who first proposed the idea six years ago, says his bill, reintroduced this week, won't legalize betting. But it will decriminalize small pools with a $50 "buy-in limit" (i.e., the maximum bet you can place) which are focused on a specific event with the full pot going to the winners.

"If you're talking $1,000, you're maybe pushing it, but we're talking about the mom-and-pop bars putting money in a hat," Plale says. "It's not an open opportunity to set up new gambling parlors."

Michigan lawmakers are also discussing a bill that would exempt NCAA college basketball brackets from the state's definition of gambling. As long as the entry fee doesn't exceed $20 and the pool doesn't exceed 100 people, it will be legal.

Both bills still have a long way to go. And there's a potentially large obstacle blocking the lane: the NCAA, which takes a no-tolerance stance on wagering and discourages the legalization of any betting on college sports. "We believe that sports wagering has become a real problem and it threatens the well-being of student athletes and the integrity of college sports," said NCAA spokeswoman Stacey Osburn, who adds that the association briefs players on the perils of gambling. "We've heard of brackets and office pools that have been in excess of $100,000. But we want to send a clear message that you can have fun and money doesn't have to be involved for that to take place."

On the Madison campus, there isn't a lot of obvious enthusiasm for Plale's cause. Since pool participants rarely get arrested, it doesn't matter much to Wisconsin fans whether placing bets is officially illegal, according to Zack Kukkonen, sports editor for The Daily Cardinal, a UW student newspaper. "Pretty much everyone I know is in some sort of pool, although not necessarily for money, a lot of them are for money. It's just so much fun to do that everyone has gotten wrapped up in it. Even people who don't care about college basketball in the least are doing pools," Kukkonen says.

But Plale says that is exactly the point. If people are committing the "crime" and law enforcement doesn't consider it serious enough to pursue, then the law clearly needs to be amended.

"It's like the old law where every slice of apple pie sold at a Wisconsin restaurant had to be served with a piece of Wisconsin cheddar cheese," Plale said (even though the existence of the said "law" is a well-worn Wisconsin myth). "We have all these silly antiquated laws that are not enforced, so why not have the statute books reflect reality?"

Unfazed by the legal dangers, Badgers fans are laying their wallets on the line for the home team, Kukkonen says. "They have a very good chance of getting into the Elite Eight," Kukkonen said, referring to the quarterfinal round of the tournament. "And most brackets I've seen have them going all the way, but that may be just because people want it to happen."

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