You Mad(ness)? Examining the Legality of Company NCAA Championship Brackets
‘Tis the season to fill out brackets, and there’s no denying that betting on the NCAA is a practice almost as traditionally apple-pie-all-American as decking your halls with boughs of holly. As of exactly ten years ago, 27% of the American workforce participated Championship office brackets, racking up a staggering overall $2.5 billion in bets.
Turns out, the majority of these college basketball aficionados were participating in an activity widely outlawed in the United States. In Nevada, college sport-based gambling is not only legal, but extremely lucrative for the state; over $600 million have been generated from this genre of gambling alone. However, the legality of inter-office gambling pools, as harmless as they might be, does not extend beyond the borders of the Silver State. In fact, in the other 49, individuals prosecuted for participating in office brackets can face penalties ranging from a misdemeanor charge to a full year in prison.
Don’t Cause a (B)racket: Championship Bracket Laws
NCAA betting pools are considered illegal in most states if they include three qualifiers: reward, consideration, and chance. Since virtually all in-office brackets are done with the purpose of one lucky coworker winning some cash prize, “reward” is certainly qualified. Since these rewards are usually the compilation of some entry fee paid by all participants, “consideration” is also put on the table. Chance is really the only criterion that may leave some room for interpretation, because some might argue that filling out brackets based on certified experts’ projections would curb or eliminate the element of surprise. However, precedent isn’t necessarily on their side: in 1953, Commonwealth v. Laniewski ruled that “it is common knowledge that the predictions [of multiple real-world sporting events] even among these so-called ‘experts’ are far from infallible.”
That being said, it’s extremely rare for John Doe to be prosecuted to the full–or any–extent of the law for making a couple of NCAAM Championship predictions with his fellow in-office college ball fans. However, the same can’t be said for his boss: current gambling laws render employers considerably more likely to face repercussions for participating in or endorsing brackets in their office. This liability can be waived by employers’ inclusion of an anti-gambling section in their employee handbook.
Of course, should an employer catch word of any in-office NCAAM Championship pools going around, the only foolproof way to avoid prosecution themselves–and to completely avoid their employees’ potential brushes with the law–would be to shut the entire thing down. However, committed Non-Party-Poopers with outlined anti-gambling company procedures often risk turning a blind eye to employees’ bracket activities, simply refusing to participate directly themselves. If, as an employer, you just can’t shake the vice, make sure that you are not the one organizing your office’s gambling event. Apparently, a number of states allow participants to place bets with little to no penalties, but organizers are punished far more severely.
Ways to Play it Safe
Should NCAAM Championship brackets comprise a significant portion of your workplace culture and boost in-office morale, there are ways to keep the tradition alive while significantly reducing any (already relatively small) risk of being held legally liable. Firstly, the potential winnings should be kept relatively small–like, keep-it-in-the-tens small. Chances are the FBI has bigger fish to fry than Jim from accounting’s extra $50 from taking a chance on the Sooners. Furthermore, keep things “rustic” by keeping track of pools on paper rather than online. While this may sound shady, it’s mostly a way to keep your office more efficient. Having a Master Madness Notebook, or something of that sort, minimizes the chance that crowds of avid bettors will spend their office hours crowded around computer monitors or email-exchanging updated bracket trackers. In fact, save the Madness talk for hours not spent at work: organize post-work happy hours to watch games, or discuss how your brackets are doing with colleagues on your lunch break. This isn’t just to uphold legality but to preserve overall professionalism. Finally, perhaps the most efficient way to keep your pool outside the realm of suspicion is to skip buy-ins, opting instead for free entry and the winner’s receiving a predetermined prize at the end of the season.
No one wants to be the spoilsport who ruins all the fun. However, employers and employees alike would be remiss if they entered into in-office gambling pools, however small and harmless, without at least being mindful of the consequences. Federal prosecution of NCAA bettors is minimal, but it can’t hurt to follow the simple tips outlined above in order to minimize your–and your workplace’s–liability. Although it may sound like an oxymoron, when it comes to Madness, it’s imperative to make sure that you proceed with caution.