It can be hard to draw a line when it's time to follow rules

The Kickoff

March 14, 2006|By KEVIN VAN VALKENBURG

Throughout my life, I've never been much of a gambler.

Even though gambling is deeply woven into the fabric of American culture - especially the American male culture, of which I am a proud, unapologetic member - I've never been very good, or interested, in any of it. I have, perhaps, the world's worst poker face. Until three years ago, I was pretty sure Texas Hold 'em was a form of country line dancing. I've developed a reputation for getting nervous during friendly hands of Go Fish at family reunions with my 12-year-old cousins. (Girls at that age are simply cutthroat, aren't they?) When people talked about "the spread," my mind conjured up images of butter on toast, not whether the Patriots should be getting or giving points on the road.

Except, of course, when it came to the NCAA tournament.

As a newspaper reporter, working in a business that needs another ethical lapse like it needs a punch to the solar plexus, I simply don't bet anything I might someday have to cover. But back in my college days, before I was bound by the rules and responsibilities of being a real journalist, March Madness was like a holiday for me. I was a complete sucker for action. I'd study the brackets with the intensity of a Talmudic scholar. I'd call up friends, enemies, ex-classmates, ex-teachers and even ex-girlfriends if I thought they could help me pick a winner in the No. 5 vs. No. 12 game. In 1999, a friend and I nearly cried tears of joy after we correctly picked Weber State in an upset of North Carolina.

And yet, the NCAA tournament is the one form of gambling where knowledge doesn't seem to matter. That, in fact, is part of its appeal. My mom - who would make her picks based on which mascot she liked better, regardless of seed - whipped me more times than I can count. And despite that shame, I loved it. For a few weeks, like millions of other people, I didn't really care about potentially sullying the supposed purity of amateur athletics. I didn't even really care that it was technically a violation of federal law. I just wanted to enjoy the rush of potentially winning my $10 pool.

And that, right there, is just part of the reason why I can't get all that upset about Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire allegedly taking steroids so they could hit home runs.

What Bonds and McGwire (and countless others in baseball) supposedly did isn't anything to be proud of, but in a lot of ways, it's also not all that different from various ethical lapses we willingly turn a blind eye to every day in sports. Betting on college basketball is illegal unless you do it in the state of Nevada, just like possessing a controlled substance like steroids violates the law, unless you have a prescription from a doctor. And yet look around this week, and you'll find newspapers and Web sites essentially encouraging people to break the first law, while condemning baseball players for breaking the second.

Think all those free, printable brackets available are being used for "entertainment purposes only?" Of course not. No one believes that. But as a society, we've apparently decided that it's OK to ignore some unenforceable laws while getting righteous about others.

The online sports book PinnacleSports.com estimates that nearly $4 billion will be wagered on this year's NCAA tournament, and the FBI says only $90 million of that will be done legally in Nevada. But you won't likely see congressional hearings about it any time soon, even though you could credibly argue that gambling destroys more lives than performance-enhancing drugs.

Bonds' alleged steroid use is deplorable, but in some ways, it's also understandable. He was supposed to "know" that using steroids was wrong the same way you and I "know" that wagering money on Connecticut to win it all is wrong. But when the line between right and wrong is constantly in flux, how do you know if the spot where you're standing is on the right or the wrong side?

Bonds' father, Bobby Bonds, played in the same era as Gaylord Perry, a pitcher who admittedly cheated his way to 314 victories and into the Hall of Fame by doctoring baseballs on the mound. Some of the same writers who voted Perry into Cooperstown now want to keep Bonds out. Are some kinds of cheating just easier to stomach than others? If so, how do we decide which ones?

The answer, I guess, depends on your own interpretation of what virtue is. And often, figuring that out is no easier than picking which teams are going to advance to the Sweet 16. I miss filling out that bracket sometimes, but it's probably for the best. It gets old, anyway, watching your mom gloat, year after year after year.

kevin.vanvalkenburg @baltsun.com

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