Sadly, millions of fans glued to college basketball games during the "March Madness" of the NCAA tournament have more at stake than good old school spirit or love of the sport.
They have money on the games.
Such gambling usually takes place through office or campus betting pools, or through Internet sites. Estimates of the money wagered on this two-week tournament reach about $3 billion, perhaps more. And all of it is illegal, except for $600 million or so in Nevada, the only state that allows college-sports betting.
State laws against sports betting have become dead letters for a number of reasons. High among them is the meteoric rise of Internet gambling. Websites offering sports gambling are often outside the US, unreachable by state authorities. An estimated 5 million gamblers use them.
With betting pools at offices also on the rise, some businesses have wisely banned them because they distract workers and breed lawlessness.
Most disturbing is sports betting by college students, promoting a habit of compulsive gambling. A 1997 Harvard Medical School study found that 1 in 20 college students is addicted to gambling. Other studies have shown that college athletes themselves are frequent sports bettors a finding that raises questions about the integrity of athletic contests.
Schools aren't doing enough to discourage such gambling, even though it's illegal and can eat into academic performance and pile up debt. Campuses can start by banning the use of school facilities or computers for gambling and cracking down on campus bookies.
Most important, they should educate students that learned skills not the long odds of chance bring success.
A bill in Congress would ban college sports betting countrywide. That would eliminate the point spreads and other betting inducements emanating from Las Vegas. But more than that is needed to quell what has become a mania for betting expressed in everything from state lotteries to gambling that a false tax return won't be audited by the IRS.
Reversing the betting trend won't be easy, but sports gambling isn't a bad place to start.
Schools, businesses, and state governments should join in a public campaign to point out the illegality and harm of this activity. There are ample Americans with common sense enough to take in such a message and recognize the fallacies of relying on chance.