An advertisement for a writer's retreat.

Presidential candidate John McCain invites readers on his Web site to create a bracket picking winners in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament and compare their picks to his own. Four years ago the Republican senator from Arizona advocated a clear message that gambling on amateur athletics is wrong.

“Get started to create your own bracket and compare your picks to John McCain by filling out the form below!” says a graphic depicting a basketball and hardwood floor titled “McCain Basketball Bracket.”

Scoring goes like this: “You will receive 1 point for each correct winner in round 1, 2 points for each correct winner in round 2, 3 points for each correct winner in round 3, 4 points for each correct winner in round 4, 5 points for each correct winner in round 5 and 6 points for correctly picking the 2007 champion.”

Prizes will be awarded to three “team members,” who must register on-line, with the top scores. First place receives a McCain 2008 fleece, second place a McCain 2008 hat and third place a McCain 2008 lapel pin.

Since McCain’s game doesn’t cost money to play, it’s legal. But it appeals to a widely popular practice of betting in office pools.

A survey by career publisher Vault Inc. showed that 27 percent of employees participate in March Madness office pools. According to an FBI estimate from several years ago, March Madness fans will wager more than $2.5 billion in illegal bets.

Despite its popularity, sports wagering in America is illegal in all but two states, according to a National Gambling Impact Study Commission report in 1999. At the time Oregon ran a game called “Sports Action” associated with its state lottery. Nevada had 142 legal sports books that allow wagering on professional and amateur sports. Legal sports gambling in Nevada reached $2.3 billion in fiscal 1998. One major resort estimated that betting on amateur events accounted for 33 percent of its revenue.

Estimates of the scope of illegal sports betting in the United States range from $80 to $380 billion annually, making it one of the most widespread and popular forms of gambling in America.

Sports wagering in America, the report continued, is easy to participate in, widely accepted and not likely to be prosecuted. Many Americans may be unaware it is illegal to bet on sports, due to reporting of the Las Vegas “line,” or point spread, in most of the states where betting is illegal. Critics say the point spread doesn’t increase interest in sporting events, just in gambling on them.

The federal government has tried to stop Americans from betting on sports online via the Internet but has been largely unsuccessful.

Since sports wagering is illegal in most states, it doesn’t offer any of the side benefits that other forms of gambling offer–like contributing to local economies and creating jobs.

The commission heard testimony that sports wagering is a serious problem that threatens the integrity of sports and puts student athletes in a vulnerable position. There is evidence that sports wagering is widespread on college campuses, putting students at risk of gambling problems later in life. Evidence shows that sports betting can act as a gateway into other forms of gambling.

In 2003 McCain introduced legislation to make it illegal to gamble on Olympic, college or high school sports.

“Congress must take action to close the loophole in current law that allows just a handful of states to serve as national clearinghouses for betting on our youth,” McCain said. “By allowing betting in any state, we send a confusing message to our youth as to whether gambling on amateur athletics is, in fact, legal or illegal.

“I believe this ban will send a clear message that gambling on amateur athletics is wrong.”

Many businesses don’t like office pools because they hurt productivity. About a third of employees taking part in pools fill out their brackets on company time, typically taking more than a half hour away from work.

With the advent of high-speed Internet, more and more Americans are also watching the tournament at work.

CBS is doubling its Internet bandwidth this year so that 300,000 people can watch video streams of games at the same time, a target audience generally assumed to be office workers.

CBS SportsLine.com even features a “boss button” for those worried about getting caught while loafing at work.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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