The NCAA basketball tournament is right around the corner, which means two things. One, it’s time to gamble. Someone you work with likely is readying a Final Four-office pool, or maybe even planning to jet to Vegas to lay some bets. Two, the nation’s scolds — including the NCAA, local police departments, and groups with names like the Citizens Task Force on Addictions — are gearing up to remind us that gambling on sporting events is illegal. (The exception is Nevada, where just about anything goes, though the NCAA is trying to outlaw it there, too.)
If only someone would tell the nation’s politicians.
Because if there’s one thing the Final Four does, along with the Super Bowl, the World Series, and college football’s BCS championship game, it is to bring front and center one of the most moronic rituals in American popular culture.
No, not the Chicken Dance. Worse. I am referring to those timeworn friendly wagers between politicians on The Big Game.
You know the drill. The hometown team makes it to the championship, your congressman is immediately on the horn with a colleague from the competing team’s home base. They bet something your region is known for against something theirs is, issue press releases, and invite the local media. Oh, and they might watch the game, too.
Forget the Gold Club scandal, Mike Tyson’s rapes, or the 1986 Mets’ mass narcotics inhalation. These loathsome wagers represent the seamy underside of sports. There is nothing redeeming about these bets, which serve no purpose other than to train the cameras on attention-starved politicians who are lucky enough to have successful sports teams in their jurisdictions.
Or unlucky, as was the case recently for Missouri Senator Kit Bond. He felt pretty good about the St. Louis Rams’ chances in Super Bowl XXXVI, so he spread the bets around like, well, like a drunken senator. When the Rams played like the Lambs, Bond was out not just five pounds of Missouri pork to Rhode Island solon Lincoln Chafee, but also a bunch of frozen custard (frozen custard?) to John Kerry and Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts.
Sure these bets are an annual rite, but year in and year out they never cease being incredibly lame. When the final ticks of the clock sealed the Baltimore Ravens’ triumph over the New York Giants in last year’s Super Bowl, was there anyone in America who exclaimed, “Yes! Now George Pataki is going to have to make good and send that bushel of Long Island little neck clams to Parris Glendening!”?
It’s ironic that Glendening even entertained the wager, since one of the hallmarks of his tenure at the Maryland statehouse will be that he prevented the addition of slot machines at the state’s racetracks. Why? Oh, he’s against gambling.
During last year’s Final Four, deservedly obscure congressmen Jim Kolbe of Arizona and Mike Rogers of Michigan felt the need to tell the world about their little wager. If Arizona defeated Michigan State in the semifinal game, Rogers would have to wear a Wildcats hat; if Michigan State prevailed, Kolbe would wear a MSU lid. Thanks for keeping us informed.
Usually these wagers provide meaningless filler for the local papers and for the Capitol Hill rags. Texas Rep. Marty Frost betting five dozen tamales to Pennsylvania lawmaker Bill Coyne’s similar number of pierogies over Super Bowl XXX is a perfectly inane example. Or New York legislator Maurice Hinchey throwing down a New York pizza against Georgia Rep. Johnny Isakson’s barbecue, pending the outcome of the 1999 World Series.
The point is they are absurd, of no consequence to the game itself, and of no concern to anyone.
The occasional exception does arise, like the mini-scandal that erupted over the 1992 Super Bowl between the Washington Redskins and Buffalo Bills. A Republican congressman from New York told the press that his wife, a Redskins fan, had made a bet with Empire State Governor Mario Cuomo. If the Giants won, his wife would send the guv a batch of chocolate chip cookies. If the Redskins won, he joked, Cuomo had to support the death penalty. Cuomo was furious, and his staff felt it necessary to issue a stern correction.
Aside from that light moment, the ’92 Super Bowl was a disaster. Too many pols spoiled the fun. Here’s how the Capitol Hill newspaper “Roll Call” described the debacle: “[We] received two press releases from Rep. Connie Morella (R-MD), for instance, touting her wager with New York Rep. Bill Paxon (R). If the Bills win, Paxon gets Maryland crabs; if the Skins prevail, Morella gets Buffalo chicken wings. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) and Rep. Henry Nowak (D-NY) have the same bet: crabs for wings. And Rep. John LaFalce (D-NY) put up chicken wings against Rep. Jim Moran’s (D-VA) Virginia Ham. Here’s where it gets complicated. LaFalce’s office called back and said that the Congressman’s bet was with Morella, not Moran. HOH then called Morella, who confirmed that her bet was with LaFalce and not Paxon, as her two cogently written press releases had claimed earlier. While Norton and Nowak are all squared away, Paxon still thinks he has a bet with Morella, and Moran still thinks his wager is with LaFalce. Maybe Paxon should call Moran.”
Nothing says “Your Tax Dollars at Work” like that.
Political wagers usually are reserved for major sporting events like the Final Four or the Super Bowl, but occasionally get made on the outcome of something so small as a Class 3 state football championship, or the annual Texas-Oklahoma football game. It is considered bad form, however, to wager on just any run-of-the-mill athletic contest.
Diminutive Nashville congressman Bob Clement made that mistake a few year ago when the Tennessee Titans played a midseason game against the Washington Redskins. Like a gambling addict desperately needing the action, Clement squared off with Capitol men’s room attendant — and die-hard Skins fan — Melvin Gaither. Clement offered to pay double for a shoeshine if the Titans lost; Gaither had to pony up a free shine if the Skins fell. The Skins lost, and Gaither duly buffed and shined Clement’s tiny shoes. Nothing makes a small man even smaller than when he takes a free shoeshine from a bathroom attendant.
Clement’s picayune wager embodies just what is wrong with all of this faux gambling: The small stakes are for wusses. I’ll mute my criticism the day the wagers start shaping up like satirist Matt Schroeder suggested before last month’s Rams-Patriots Super Bowl. Schroeder wrote a fake news short about the bet between Governors Bob Holden of Missouri and Jane Swift of Massachusetts: “Holden said Monday he would put $1.2 million of state funds against a similar amount from Massachusetts, adding that he would give the Patriots 12 points….’I’ve got a system that never fails me, plus I have inside information about Patriots injuries that not even the media knows about,’ Holden said. ‘That money is earmarked for teachers’ pensions, and won’t the union be thrilled when I double their funds in one afternoon.”
Now that’s gambling.
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