March was once defined by a lion and a lamb, not from a Christian perspective, but based on the weather. That’s all changed. The word now most often associated with the third month is, “Madness,” as in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship.
March Madness runs for three weeks, ushering fans through the Sweet 16, the Elite Eight and finally to one our nation’s most iconic events, The Final Four. It is a tournament best characterized by a seemingly endless parade of brilliant moments and nail-biting finishes. For a sustained adrenaline rush, it’s tough to beat the NCAA Tourney.
All of that drama fuels a lot of interest and, as is the case with most popular sporting events, the presence of the gambling industry. The extent is staggering.
Fueled by a rabid audience, the NCAA’s television rights for the tournament now exceed $1 billion annually. That’s huge money in the realm of rights fees, but it’s chump change compared with what the tournament produces for the gambling industry. Prior to last year’s tournament, the American Gaming Association forecasted that 40 million people would wager $9.2 billion on the games.
That kind of money must certainly be rolling in from professional gamblers in Las Vegas or Atlantic City, right? Wrong. The average bet was $29, and only 28 percent of the money was wagered through legalized services. This is not an undercurrent of activity; it’s a tidal wave, most of which is illegal and linked to organized crime.
And that makes it impossible to square with Paul’s letter to the Philippians that said, “Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable—if there is any moral excellence and if there is any praise—dwell on these things” (Phil. 4:8).
As a 30-year college athletics administrator, sports wagering terrifies me on many fronts. But as a born-again believer, it concerns me even more. Christian values are under a full-court press of their own, though that press is often subtle. Our culture claims a little more ground every day, blurring right and wrong with a wink and a smile. We don’t usher purity out the door one truckload at a time; we do so gradually in much smaller increments, like a $29 chance.
This March Madness offers an opportunity to draw a line. Betting on sports has destroyed the lives of many. I recently read the account of one imprisoned gambler who confessed that it wasn’t the money he owed or the funds he embezzled to pay his debts that kept him up at nights; it was the prospect of explaining his failings to his wife and children.
That’s an extreme case, I know, but it’s also one that probably started years earlier with a small-dollar bet that most would dismiss as harmless.
Let me suggest an alternative that could strike a blow in purifying the tournament and our hearts. As the 2017 tournament rolls around, rather than focusing on a college activity that runs for just three weeks, we can instead put the spotlight on one with eternal ramifications. If you’ve got a few dollars burning a hole in your pocket and a passion for college activity, write a check to Oklahoma Baptist University or the Baptist College Ministries office on your favorite campus.
Maybe we can start a new trend for the month. “March Gladness,” has a nice ring to it.