March Madness wagers, critics say, not harmless

NASHVILLE (BP) -- Putting $10 in the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament office pool may seem harmless, but some contend it violates federal and state laws as well as biblical principles.

"Christians would be wise to refrain from gambling on the NCAA Tournament," said Barrett Duke, vice president for public policy and research at Southern Baptists' Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. "That is the best way to make sure they are not violating their responsibilities before God and their fellow man. They should share their convictions with others and encourage them to refrain as well."

The FBI estimates that more than $2.5 billion is wagered on March Madness each year, exceeding the amount bet on the Super Bowl, according to the NCAA website. The American Gaming Association estimated that Americans have filled out 70 million brackets this year with the average bet per bracket coming in at $29. The total number of brackets filled out exceeds the number of votes cast in the last presidential election for either President Obama or Mitt Romney.

The NCAA "opposes all forms of gambling -- legal and illegal -- on college sports," according to the group's website. Betting on college sports provides children an entry point to gambling, prompts individuals involved in organized crime to contact student-athletes and "threatens the well-being of student-athletes and the integrity of the game," the NCAA said in a statement on its website.

NCAA Tournament betting also violates federal law and gambling laws in many states, law professor Marc Edelman wrote in Forbes.

"Most participants who pay entry fees into NCAA Tournament pools will probably never stop to consider the legal implications of their actions," Edelman, associate professor of law at the City University of New York's Baruch College, wrote. "However, while the participants in NCAA pools are rarely prosecuted, there is a strong argument that pay-to-enter contests violate both federal and state law."

At least three federal laws, Edelman wrote, appear to prohibit NCAA Tournament pools in which money is involved:

-- The Interstate Wire Act of 1961 has been interpreted by numerous courts as forbidding gambling online.

-- The Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992 makes it illegal for any private person to operate a wagering scheme based on a competitive game in which "professional or amateur athletes participate." A grandfather clause exempts previously authorized gambling in Nevada, Delaware, Oregon and Montana.

-- The Uniform Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 prohibits those "engaged in the business of betting or wagering" from knowingly accepting funds connected with unlawful Internet gambling.

"Beyond these three federal laws, there is also a strong argument that many pay-to-enter NCAA Tournament polls violate state gambling laws," Edelman wrote.

Biblical principles relate to betting on college basketball as well, Duke told Baptist Press in written comments.

"When we gamble, we misuse some of the resources entrusted to us by God, we set a dangerous example for others to follow, and we lend credibility to a practice that destroys millions of people every year. First Corinthians 10:31 reminds the Christian of his stewardship responsibility. The Christian must use all the resources at his disposal in a manner that glorifies God. This includes the little things as well," Duke said.

"He must also remember that his actions influence the decisions of others. In 1 Corinthians 8:13 the apostle Paul instructs the Christian to be sure his activity does not cause another to stumble by following his example. While someone may be able to control his gambling, someone else who follows his example may not.

"Also, the principle of neighbor love is important. Jesus illustrated the principle of neighbor love in Luke chapter 10 with the story of the Samaritan. Neighbor love puts the needs of others first. The Christian must bear in mind that he has a responsibility to help others flourish. Engaging in an activity that takes what belongs to another is not putting others first," Duke said.

Not all forms of gambling are "equally egregious," Duke said, noting that "the most egregious forms of gambling involve high levels of chance and significant potential for repetition" -- activities like playing roulette, betting on slot machines and buying lottery tickets.

High levels of chance and significant potential for repetition "are not as prominent in an activity like betting on a sports bracket that occurs once a year," Duke said. Nevertheless, casino gaming, buying lottery tickets and betting on March Madness "are all forms of gambling since they depend ultimately on varying degrees of chance. The faithful Christian would be wise to refrain from any form of gambling."

Companies "whose business model depends on people gambling and losing are by nature predatory" and "bear greater responsibility before God for their treatment of others than the person who puts a few dollars down on a sports bracket," Duke said.

"The Christian must understand, however, that gambling is not a harmless form of entertainment, like going to the movies," Duke said. "The movies do not destroy millions of lives every year. A Christian should do all he can to avoid empowering gambling organizations to continue to prey on people."

Paul Chitwood, executive director of the Kentucky Baptist Convention, told BP gambling "is a growing problem in our nation as well as in Kentucky" -- where the University of Kentucky is the overall number one seed in this year's tournament and the University of Louisville is a four seed.

"When we stop to consider that organized crime is the big winner when people gamble, that the integrity of the games and athletes we love is threatened and that countless thousands of children suffer the consequences of their parents' gambling addiction, one could hardly call gambling a harmless endeavor," Chitwood said in written comments.

Placing even minimal wagers on basketball games violates biblical principles, Chitwood said.

"The Bible warns us repeatedly against the sins of greed and covetousness, both of which are the essential motivations in gambling," Chitwood said. "Moreover, Christ followers are called to love our neighbor. Taking our neighbor's money, even if it is the person in the neighboring cubicle at work, is a poor expression of the love of Christ."

While most NCAA Tournament betting appears to be illegal, there is some disagreement among Christian denominations regarding whether some forms of gambling are permissible. For example, the Roman Catholic Church believes "games of chance" or "wagers" are "not in themselves contrary to justice," according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Instances of wagering become "morally unacceptable when they deprive someone of what is necessary to provide for his needs and those of others," the Catechism states. "The passion for gambling risks becoming an enslavement. Unfair wagers and cheating at games constitute grave matter, unless the damage inflicted is so slight that the one who suffers it cannot reasonably consider it significant."

In contrast, a 1997 Southern Baptist Convention resolution "call[ed] on all Christians to exercise their influence by refusing to participate in any form of gambling or its promotion." The resolution noted that gambling "has left in its wake pain and destruction in the lives of countless people." A 2014 SBC resolution opposed all government sponsorship of gambling.

David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service.
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