Just How Illegal Is Your March Madness Bracket?

Would a proposed online-gambling ban make your office pool a crime?

Your biggest bracket fear should be upsets, not jail time.
National Journal
March 20, 2014, 8:42 a.m.

If you’ve heard about new ef­forts this week to ban on­line gambling, you’re prob­ably won­der­ing what that means for your of­fice March Mad­ness pool. Your an­swer, if that’s the sort of thing you’re con­cerned about, should be: “What March Mad­ness pool?”

You see, while on­line gambling was pretty much leg­al­ized on the fed­er­al level in a 2011 Justice De­part­ment de­cision, the rul­ing came with one ex­cep­tion: sports bet­ting. DOJ’s leg­al coun­sel “has ana­lyzed the scope of the Wire Act … and con­cluded that it is lim­ited only to sports bet­ting,” Deputy At­tor­ney Gen­er­al James Cole wrote in Decem­ber of that year.

So while the feds won’t crack down on on­line poker (at least for the mo­ment), put­ting money on your brack­et is tech­nic­ally il­leg­al, in ad­di­tion to be­ing fool­ish (and def­in­itely not something this re­port­er has wasted un­told dol­lars on).

While Sen. Lind­sey Gra­ham and Rep. Jason Chaf­fetz try to re­store the Wire Act’s far-reach­ing on­line-gambling ban, oth­er le­gis­la­tion adds to the con­fu­sion. The Un­law­ful In­ter­net Gambling En­force­ment Act, passed in 2006, al­lows games of skill such as poker and fantasy sports (ap­par­ently pre­dict­ing ath­letes’ stat­ist­ics is a skill game, while pre­dict­ing game out­comes is not).

Cur­rently, three states — Delaware, New Jer­sey and Nevada — have sanc­tioned on­line gambling. That would plum­met to zero if the Gra­ham-Chaf­fetz bill goes through. At the oth­er end of the spec­trum, Rep. Peter King pro­posed a bill last year that would leg­al­ize and stand­ard­ize on­line gambling.

In the mean­time, the on­line gam­ing world re­mains a mixed bag of state reg­u­la­tions and little-un­der­stood, scarcely en­forced fed­er­al laws. So even though the let­ter of the law says your March Mad­ness wager could carry two years of pris­on time, you prob­ably have noth­ing to worry about — ex­cept for that up­set you nev­er saw com­ing.

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