Why wager on March Madness brackets?

As gambling on the men’s collegiate basketball finals has grown, the NCAA is now promoting the ‘brackets.’ Amateur sports does not need the taint of corrosive gambling.

AP Photo
This photo shows a portion of the bracket of the NCAA college basketball tournament for this year.

To the rest of the world, Americans seem obsessed with this year’s presidential contest. But consider this comparison:

For three weeks in March, the number of forms (“brackets”) expected to be filled out by fans to predict the winners in the finals of men’s collegiate basketball will be greater than the number of ballots cast for Barack Obama in the last election.

Why this obsession with this National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) tournament, which is otherwise known as March Madness?

For most bracket-fillers in the US, making a prediction on the 68-team field is not simply for the thrill of trying to beat others in basketball knowledge. The average bet per bracket has now reached an estimated $29, making gambling on this amateur sport a prime attraction. And even though placing money down on a sports game is illegal in most states, nearly 40 million to 50 million Americans are expected to join in the “fun,” many of them in office pools.

The NCAA itself has long argued against gambling on its sports. It does not want its school athletes corrupted in any way to throw a game. The league has even informed daily fantasy sports operators DraftKings and FanDuel that they cannot advertise during championship events.

But this year the NCAA decided to join up with Microsoft’s search engine, Bing, to help fans fill out their brackets. And it is promoting the brackets even though the National Council on Problem Gambling estimates 5 million Americans have a gambling addiction.

March Madness, says the council’s executive director, Keith Whyte, “has become a national gambling holiday.” In fact, the group recently designated March as Problem Gambling Awareness Month.

To add to the problem, employers are expected to lose at least $1.9 billion in lost productivity at the office because of worker chatter over NCAA bracketology, according to Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a Chicago-based global outplacement firm.

Gambling on sports has many negative effects, but none more so than that it counters the very purpose of sports as a measure of talent, effort, and teamwork. A popular belief in luck as a godlike force should never supplant the desire to see athletes express these qualities. Few Americans place bets on the presidential contests, which are a serious exercise of public life. Why sully sports with even a small wager?

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