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March Madness: Everyone into the office pool

March 15, 2011 |  1:32 pm

March Madness Pssst. Hey buddy -- wanna buy a bracket sheet?

This is the week millions of otherwise law-abiding Americans break the law.

College basketball's March Madness seemingly releases the inner gambler in everyone. People who wouldn't go near a horse race or a Vegas casino become Jimmy the Greek. Newspapers publish predictions, complete with elaborate bracket graphics.

And you thought that's just to help you fans follow your favorite teams?

According to the FBI, all those office pool wagers add up to about $2.5 billion -- all illegal.

Which, of course, doesn't stop anyone. Still, you may wonder: If the government can read my e-mails to catch terrorists, am I safe from the gambling police?

Or, even more pressing: Can my company can me?

I'm no lawyer. I do know some lawyers, but being lawyers, they'd probably charge me if I asked.

So I've gone to my most trusted legal source: legalzoom.com. Here's what it says:

"While you study the match-ups and make your picks, you may be asking yourself: 'Is my office pool legal?'

In short: No. Betting on college sports is legal only in Nevada, where it now brings in more than $600 million a year. Though the FBI may not be conducting 24-hour surveillance on your cubicle, participating in or organizing inter-office gambling, like all unlicensed sports betting, is illegal. In most states, involvement in such pools can result in a misdemeanor charge and up to one year in prison."

Oops. That "one year in prison" part kind of sneaks up on you, doesn't it?

But read on, oh panicked ones:

"In reality, the likelihood of facing prosecution for participating in an office betting pool as an employee or employer is virtually nonexistent. Employers, however, face significantly higher risk than employees. And if you're the company owner, the liability risk may be more than you're willing to accept. Many bosses and owners may laugh at the fact that their 'little office pool' is actually illegal. And although the risk of prosecution is low, if you own the company, you need to be aware that March Madness can pose serious legal liabilities."

Whew. We're off the hook; the bosses are on their own.

But the part I like best about legalzoom.com is that its advice can be so, well, unlawyerly. Consider:

"The other side of the coin is that office pools usually carry low bet amounts and can create camaraderie among employees. The possibilities of long-shots and underdog victories make March Madness one of the most exciting events in sports; even non-sports fans are easily swept up in the enthusiasm. Following a team, trash-talking with friends, and putting a little money down add to the fun and can help foster a sense of community among employees."

Wow. I'd like to see how that plays in court.

"It wasn't really gambling, your honor. We were just trying to create a little camaraderie!"

I'm pretty sure that's where that "one year in prison" part comes in.

For the record, though, I like Ohio State to win it all. (But don't bet on it.)


Power rankings for all 68 teams

50 Bold Predictions for 2011's March Madness

NCAA tournament bracketology is a whole new course now

-- Paul Whitefield

Photo: How big is the NCAA tournament? Princeton fans harass Harvard's Kyle Casey in the Ivy League championship game on Saturday, which Princeton won on a last-second shot to earn a berth in the big dance. Credit: Jessica Hill / Associated Press

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