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Patrick Hruby

State of Denial

Why Washington, D.C. NCAA basketball tournament brackets are strictly off the record

On the record, nobody knows nothin'. Officially speaking, the fine men and women working in our nation's capital — all of them humble public servants, faithful stewards of the republic, diligently attending to the people's business — would never dream of participating in something as illicit and frivolous as an NCAA Tournament office pool.

Not the commanders at the Pentagon. Not the legislators on the Hill. Certainly not at the White House, since gambling on sports is technically, well, illegal. Never mind that the illegality in question typically involves a $5 entry fee that will: (A) likely end up buying pizza and beer, unless you're Rick Neuheisel; (B) never be seen by its original owner again, not unless Belmont and Holy Cross advance to the Final Four.

"I wish we had a pool," says Tony Fratto, who works for White House spokesman Tony Snow.

Fratto, it should be noted, is a basketball nut. Coached high school kids while attending grad school. Has attended 12 Final Fours. Counts himself as a good friend of Christine Olson, the wife of Arizona coach and NCAA fixture Lute Olson.

So again: Is Fratto absolutely, positively sure the White House doesn't have a pool? Not even a just-for-fun pick 'em?

"Alas, but no," he says. "Although, I wouldn't be able to participate if we did — my personal rule is never to do a pool when my team, Pitt, is a single-digit seed. So it has been a while since I've done one."

Personal rules aside, Fratto's assertion is fishy. Appropriately PR smooth, but fishy. After all, the World Bank had a World Cup pool. The Supreme Court is strongly rumored to have a regular poker game. My old employer, the Washington Times, runs points spreads in the sports page. Off the record, Washington is a better-than-average sports town, just as mad for March as the rest of the country. With one key difference.

Nobody wants to admit it. At least not publicly.

Sweating those 5-12 games? Keep it to yourself. Obsessed with Winthrop's outside shooting? Don't ask, don't tell, and definitely don't use Justice Department internal e-mail to solicit brackets (true story!), lest you end up debating Purdue's tourney credentials with a government ethics lawyer.

"It's one of those fine line things where you're not allowed to gamble on government property," says "Deep Brackets," a high-ranking lawyer for a federal agency. "While this is a mild form of gambling — I suspect that half the White House does it — they don't want this getting picked up and running in the Washington Post.

"If you did an anonymous poll at the Justice Department, I'd guess you'd get 60-70 percent participation. But if you asked on the record, you'd probably get, 'What pool?' "

An avid fantasy sports player, Deep Brackets (not his real name, though you probably figured that out already) has a point: Last week, I contacted nearly a dozen federal agencies, offices and officials, searching for an NCAA pool; at every turn, I met with Nixonian stonewalling. Deny, deny, deny. And then deny some more. Among the lowlights …

The NSA: Cryptographers. Bracketology. A match made in math genius heaven. At best, I hoped to sit in on the world's smartest office pool; at worst, I figured someone would let me use a code-breaking supercomputer to pick the 8-9 games. No dice. On one hand, an agency spokeswoman promptly responded to my e-mail query — the NSA reads everyone's e-mail anyway, right? — and said it sounded like a great story; on the other, she subsequently quoted Department of Defense Joint Ethics Regulation No. 5500.7-R, which states: "A DoD employee shall not participate while on Federally owned or leased property or while on duty for the Federal Government in any gambling activity prohibited by 5 C.F.R 735.201."

Oh, of course: 5 C.F.R. 735.201. What was I thinking?

Clerk of the House: No better place to ask about a House of Representatives office pool — unless you actually need information about a House of Representatives office pool. The first person I talked to had no idea what the NCAA Tournament was; the second asked me if office pools were a federally funded program. Eventually, I was transferred to the U.S. Capitol Building Visitor Information Line, which informed me that stun guns and martial arts devices are strictly prohibited on federal property. Now you know.

NASA: A fantasy sports-loving agency astronomer initially agreed to share his bracket the day after Selection Sunday. One catch: He first had to check with his boss. Two hours later, my phone rang. Mission aborted. Apparently, the people who once put a man on the moon would rather not appear to be wasting taxpayers' time and money. In unrelated news, the International Space Station remains in orbit.

Sen. John McCain's office: Surprisingly, a staffer all but confirmed the existence of a McCain office pool. Does the senator fill out a bracket? We'll check. That evening, McCain announced his '08 presidential bid on Letterman. Radio silence ever since … but not web silence, which no serious candidate for president can afford these days. (McCain picked North Carolina over Kansas with a total final score of 157.)

(Coincidentally, Congress banned sports betting in most states in 1992; more recently, McCain introduced a bill that would have banned college sports wagering completely. Guess the Senator's brackets are strictly for recreational purposes.)

The White House Press Corps: Not a federal agency, but close enough. Unfortunately, the reporters I contacted were unaware of a press bracket, let alone a White House pool. According to Washington Post reporter Peter Baker, this isn't unusual: When a reporter recently asked what kind of television President Bush planned to watch the Super Bowl on, a spokesman refused to comment.

The Washington Redskins: Not a federal agency, but as much a Washington institution as Beltway gridlock and Old Ebbitt Grill. From previous experience hanging around Redskins Park, I know that brackets aren't exactly hard to find. Upon asking the club for an official statement, however, a team spokesman related the following: "On the record, we don't participate in pools. We support intercollegiate athletics, but not in that way." He then let out an official giggle. Well, that's what it sounded like.

The American Gaming Association: Disappointingly, the nation's preeminent gambling lobby doesn't have a pool — but only because its 11-person office is, according to a spokeswoman, "too small to produce a big enough pot."

Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Congressional Budget Office, the Justice Department: Did not return calls and messages — which, come to think of it, is probably easier than having to lie about the topic, potentially triggering the appointment of a special prosecutor and/or federal grand jury probe.

"The whole thing is a stupid situation," says a lobbyist who formerly worked for the executive branch. "But that's what they get you on in this town. The stupid things. Look at what happened to Scooter Libby."

Speaking of Libby, Washington's reflexive tight-lippedness only goes so far. Leaks are as common as bewildering traffic circles. Looking for the truth? Talk to someone with nothing to lose.

According to one former congressional staffer, D.C.-area March Madness peaks on the Hill. Offices brim with recent college graduates, all of them proud of their schools and regions. "In my office, UConn games were golden, absolutely sacred," the former staffer says. "We had paraphernalia all over the reception area. During the tournament, that was the only time you would see something other than the trifecta of Capitol Hill television: CNN, Fox News and C-SPAN. People were definitely watching the games."

As for picking the games? That happens, too. So says legislative legend Lee Hamilton, the former Indiana congressman and 1982 inductee into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame.

"Oh sure, on Capitol Hill there were quite a few pools," says Hamilton, director of the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars and former co-chair of the Iraq Study Group. "I don't know if any money was involved, but people were predicting it.

"There's intense interest in athletics among members of Congress, a lot of rivalries. It was an important aspect of governing — you work in a confrontational environment, so common interests away from politics are important."

That interest extends to the top. All the way to the top. Former White House chef Walter Scheib, who served from 1994 to 2005, recalls staff football and basketball pools. In '94, President Clinton watched his beloved Arkansas Razorbacks roll to the national title on the White House theater's 200-inch projection screen — sometimes with his buddies, once with members of the residence staff.

"It was an early-round game, and he forgot to invite anybody over," says Scheib, author of "White House Chef: Eleven Years, Two Presidents, One Kitchen." "So he had one of the butlers round people up to watch. Here he is, eating his lunch, hooting and hollering. And we're all, 'OK, Mr. President, yes, yes, very excellent.'

"I felt a bit awkward, so after 10 minutes I excused myself. I told the president I had something cooking on the range."

A Maryland fan, Scheib never had much luck in the White House pool. ("The year the Terrapins won, I didn't pick them," he says with a laugh. "Otherwise, they would have lost.") He doesn't know if Clinton fared any better.

"James Carville is a huge LSU fan — when they did well, he did well," Scheib says. "But if Clinton ever filled out a bracket, it wasn't widely known. You can't have the president doing something illegal, of course. But his temperament and enthusiasm were such that I wouldn't be surprised."

A mystery for future presidential scholars to unravel. In the meantime, Washington remains in a state of NCAA denial, one that extends to just about everyone. Including me. On the record, I can neither confirm nor deny that the Washington Times had a tourney pool, that I participated, or that money exchanged hands. After all, that would be unethical.

(Off the record, I once finished in second place, putting my winnings toward a nice steak dinner. But you didn't hear that from me.)

Read the full article - which covers office pools in other cities -- at ESPN.com