WASHINGTON -- This month the pulse of higher education reaches a crescendo with "March Madness," the college basketball championship tournament. So 'tis a season for a surge in sports gambling.
This is a problem, for two reasons. One is that gambling on sports is pervasive, and mostly illegal. Widespread and casual illegality undermines legality. The second reason is why Congress, in 1992, made almost all sports gambling illegal: Substantial sums wagered on sports events are potential threats to the integrity of the competition.
The mentality of modern government is to view every social defect as a problem ripe for legislative remedy, so Congress now is contemplating a measure that sets some sort of indoor record for missing the point. The social defect is illegal gambling on sports, much of it by students, much of it through bookies -- often students -- on campuses. The proposed legislative solution, believe it or not, is to ban the only legal sports betting in America, that done in Nevada, where sports gambling is heavily regulated, closely supervised and restricted to persons who are at least 21 and physically present.
Supporters of extending the ban to Nevada say it will close a "loophole" or remove an "ambiguity" in the 1992 law. But at that time Congress explicitly "grandfathered" Nevada, for which the NCAA has had reason to be glad: The 1994 point-shaving scandal involving some Arizona State University basketball players was discovered when Nevada sports books noticed suspicious patterns of wagering on ASU games.
Those who favor stripping Nevada of its right to decide what gambling should be legal there argue, implausibly, that doing so will end the common practice of newspapers publishing point spreads on college games, even though gambling on the games is illegal. But Nevada is hardly the only source of such spreads, and given the huge, 50-state demand for sports gambling, someone is going to supply spreads.
Supporters of the legislation say Nevada is hypocritical because it bans wagers on Nevada teams. However, Frank Fahrenkopf of the American Gaming Association in Washington, says the reason for the ban is that Nevada athletes are in proximity to bettors who can legally gamble on sports.
Last year the National Gambling Impact Study Commission estimated that as much as $380 billion may be wagered illegally on sports annually. Other estimates are as low as $80 billion. The fact that the estimates vary so much is a consequence of the illegality: Records are not kept. But even $80 billion makes Nevada's sports betting -- in 1998, $2.3 billion on college and professional events -- seem what it in fact is: Not the problem.
The amount bet in Nevada on college events amounts to just one-third of the state's total sports betting. And there is no plausible theory, let alone persuasive evidence, that the legality of sports gambling in Nevada is responsible for sports gambling or gambling scandals.
Gambling is as American as the state lotteries that helped fund the Revolution and many public works projects in the young Republic. It is as American as today's frenzies over initial public offerings of stocks. And it is preposterous to blame Nevada for today's pandemic of gambling. That pandemic is, in a sense, a government program -- your tax dollars at work.
If illegal sports gambling by young people is, as the NCAA warns, the "gateway" to other gambling, many American governments may rejoice. Gambling has long since been transformed from a social disease into social policy. The principal promoters of gambling in America are the 47 of America's 50 state governments (all but Hawaii, Utah and Tennessee) and the many municipalities that run lotteries to raise revenues through the "voluntary taxation" of gambling, or by permitting off-track wagering on horse racing, casino gambling, video poker, etc.
In 1998 Americans spent about $450 billion on groceries but made $630 billion in legal wagers, and lost $50 billion of that (seven times more than they spent on movie tickets). As long as the culture sends the dangerous signal that gambling is recreation no more problematic than bowling, it will be worse than pointless to deal with illegal sports gambling by making it illegal in the one state where it is legal and monitored. Besides, the impulse to gamble cannot be controlled by legislation in the age of Internet gambling.
A final touch of madness: The NCAA, which recently sold to CBS an extension of the rights to "March Madness," including the "Final Four," for $6 billion over 11 years, has asked for federal money to fund NCAA work on youth gambling and illegal sports gambling.
George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.