Let Them Swim! The Office Pool and State Morality

Perhaps you’re reading this at work — perhaps in some huge room that takes up the bulk of a floor of a nondescript, mid-rise office building. From where you sit, maybe, you can see the parking lot. Past the CEO’s spot and the Employee of the Month parking sign, manicured islands of shrubbery dot the parking lot, leading out to the street where a host of theme restaurants line the block. And beyond that: the bleak fugue of the workweek stretches out before you like so many others. During your evenings, Office Space holds a televisual mirror to your life.

But take heart, O you cogs in corporate machines. March is here — a month that, as tough as it was on Caesar, is a boon for halogen-bleached cube dwellers everywhere. For this month, more than any other, workers leave their desks and are brought together to participate in a golden ritual: that blessed distraction from workaday monotony known as the office pool

March Madness, more specifically, is the reason for the season. As you read this, the NCAA basketball tournaments (both men’s and women’s) will be underway, and fans everywhere will have already filled out their brackets in the highly unlikely hopes of picking the winners of, in the men’s case, 60 games in less than 20 days (including the championship and play-in game). Given the sheer amount of match-ups, and that the teams will have very little time to prepare for one another, upsets and surprises are bound to happen. Fans then tune in to see the best-laid seeds fall victim to the structural unpredictability of tournament play.

Which 12th seed will advance this year? Which number one won’t make it past the second round? Although the Final Four is typically free of lower ranked teams, a major factor in the tournament’s attractiveness — especially to those fans who have little to no rooting interest in a particular team — is the uncertainty of what will play out between the first games of mid-March and 2nd April, when the men’s champion is crowned in Atlanta. Moreover, the individualized brackets that fans complete, recording their predictions for the winners of each round, only intensify this interest. Though the teams that win early upsets could be just as easily called “tourney toppers” or “superior seed surprisers”, they’re known as “bracket busters” for a reason: much of the rooting interest in the NCAA tournament is generated by a kind of meta-competition that the original contests haven given rise to.

Hence the office pool, and a subsequently increased tolerance of casual Fridays during the month. Even churning out those dreaded, redundant reports by the glare of fluorescent lights becomes more bearable when tourney time rolls around. Whose bracket survived the first round? Which sports-ignorant co-worker managed to blindly predict the most unlikely upset? Tournament brackets provide for a kind of game beside the games, allowing us to play along against our office mates, buddies, or — thanks to a variety of online (and heavily sponsored) websites — total strangers. Yet, there may be something even more profound that holds bracketballers’ interest:

Cash. And lots of it.

It’s not really an office pool, after all, without something to pool together. And what better to heighten attention spans than to tie a financial windfall to all of these goings-on? Depending on your office, or website, a winning bracket can indeed bring in big bucks. Although the lucky ones would do well to avoid broadcasting their good fortunes too publicly. Technically, you see, they’re criminals. Such distinction is imposed in large part by those who decry the presence of gambling in sports, particularly when it comes to collegiate, amateur contests. How can we let the last bastion of unadulterated athletics be tainted by nefarious gambling interests? they wonder vociferously.

In the case of the NCAA tournament specifically, supporters have long pointed to the Final Four as a showcase of pure competition, driven by school spirit and untainted by crass professionalism. As such, it must be protected by the likes of those who might seek to turn a quick buck on the action. Such an argument, however, fails to realize that filthy lucre positively oozes out of the tournament; it’s just not spotlighted by the television coverage. Rather than discussing the shoe contracts, advertising deals, and mountains of coin raked in by the schools from tournament-generated revenue, we’re instead treated to slow-motion replays of giddy youth at play, all while the tourney’s theme song, “One Shining Moment”, drips saccharine from our television speakers.

In fact, just what are we witnessing when we flip on the Final Four? College basketball’s persistent, though mythical, purity has been routinely besmirched with recruiting scandals, abysmal graduation rates for players, and a group of young, superstar performers whose talent means that they have one designer sneaker already in the NBA. And yet, come tournament time, none of this seems capable of tarnishing the excitement that collegiate basketball brings fans — and betting fans — everywhere.

Do you have to bet to enjoy the games? Not at all. But is it wrong to do so? Today the answer to that question depends on where you place your bet. Prohibitions on gambling remain a stronghold for hypocrisy — where point spreads for games are printed in town papers where gambling is illegal. The spreads, we’re reminded, are “for entertainment purposes only” (we can almost feel the editors nudging us and winking). This sort of information, of course, is elsewhere only selectively available, in such obscure publications as USA Today. That the nation’s titular newspaper provides its readers with betting lines suggests that much more than “entertainment” is happening, and in many more places than Las Vegas.

March Madness, in fact, is as much a boon to bookies — legal and otherwise — as it is to office workers. Yet both are forced to negotiate the vagaries of a legal policy that allows gambling in some cities, but not in others, on some rivers, but not on the riverbanks, in some grocery stores in the form of a lottery ticket, but not on the sidewalk beyond those grocery store doors in the form of a pick-up game of craps. Adding to the ridiculousness of the situation is the undeniable fact that any sports fan looking to place a bet could do so in the time it took to make a few phone calls or, these days, log in to an offshore, online casino.

In light of such arbitrary morality, it’s high time that prohibition on gambling, and sports betting in particular, be sent the way of prohibitions past. Rather than waging some endless, pointless war against betting, government policy makers would do much better to legalize and regulate gambling (does this argument sound familiar?). I came across no better case for this than during my travels to Sweden, where I was shocked to find blackjack tables in every bar I visited (which were many). I soon learned, though, that, no matter how drunk a person was, there was a standard maximum bet (something not more than $50US), preventing someone from flushing away their life savings all at one sitting. Couldn’t the same be instituted stateside, finally ridding us of the kind of misplaced morality that turns office workers into lawbreakers, and preventing those who might indeed have a legitimate problem from betting their livelihood on one spin of the wheel?

Compulsive gambling, of course, is a true sickness that, far from being encouraged, should be treated like any addiction. But like alcohol and cigarettes, sports betting should be something to be enjoyed by responsible adults. Might it affect the integrity of college basketball, as it did during point shaving scandals of the past involving City College of New York in 1951 or, more recently, Arizona State in 1998? These scandals were the direct result of the huge amount of illicit, unregulated money at stake in sports betting. Sanctioning and regulating the action would remove that influence and replace it with a new emphasis on betting, not as a shortcut to riches, but instead as an exciting, engaging, and, most importantly for the legions casting their lots in office pools, distracting accompaniment to the thrill of athletic competition. Throw in a red Swingline stapler and few could ask for more.