Thursday, March 12, 2015
This Sunday, the NCAA will announce the 68 basketball teams that are scheduled to participate in this year's men's basketball tournament. Then, the true "madness" begins.
At many schools, one or more professors will likely organize an NCAA Tournament pool. The pool will likely include entry fees and prize money. The pool's rules and standings will often appear on a public website.
All of this may sound like innocuous fun -- especially during the anxiety-ridden days of waiting for ExpressO and Scholastica acceptances to arrive. However, law professors playing in online, pay-to-enter NCAA Tournament pools technically are acting in violation of several federal laws -- albeit, laws that are rarely enforced,
One federal law that seems to prohibit online, pay-to-enter NCAA Tournament pools is the Interstate Wire Act of 1961. This act disallows individuals from “engaging in the business of betting or wagering [through the knowing use of] a wire communication for the transmission in interstate or foreign commerce.” According to various recent court decisions, the Wire Act applies to contests hosted via the Internet, as well as those hosted over the phone. And even though the act was originally passed to crack down on organized crime, even "upstanding" individuals such as law professors, at least in theory, are not immune from prosecution.
A second federal law that seems to prohibit online, pay-to-enter NCAA Tournament pools is the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act ("PASPA"). Passed in 1992 at the behest of America’s five premier professional sports leagues (including the NCAA), PAPSA makes it illegal for any private person to operate a wagering scheme based on a competitive game in which “professional or amateur athletes participate." Of course, PASPA includes a grandfather clause that exempts previously authorized government sponsored sports gambling in four states -- Nevada, Delaware, Oregon, and Montana. But it doesn't include any exception whatsoever for private March Madness pools.
Finally, a third federal law that may disallow online, pay-to-enter NCAA Tournament pools is the Uniform Internet Gambling Enforcement Act. This act, which was passed most recently in 2006, makes it illegal for those "engaged in the business of betting or wagering" to “knowingly accept” funds in connection with the participation of another person in unlawful Internet gambling. Although the UIGEA offers a special carve-out provision for “fantasy sports,” this carve-out does not apply to March Madness pools because winning outcomes are based on the final score of actual game results, and not individual player performances.
Of course, the likelihood of anyone going to jail for simply participating in an online NCAA Tournament pool may seem next to nil. But if you are going to play in one of these contests, I have two simple recommendations: (1) let someone else other than you collect the money; and (2) encourage the host to 'grade' the brackets by hand, rather than posting contestant names and picks on an Internet website.