Sometimes, all it takes is one well-placed story to draw attention to an industry that had previously existed only in the shadows.
We’re talking about fantasy sports: an institution that pretty much everybody knows about, but few take time out of their days to spend time thinking about, aside from those who enthusiastically take part in it. But, whereas five years ago this industry largely flew under the radar, it’s been the subject of dozens of headlines in recent weeks. First: let’s get to the Why.
Overtures by the Department of Justice
These days, fantasy sports companies spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year on advertising, and has become a multi-billion dollar industry.
So why are fantasy sports leagues finding themselves under the watchful eye of the Department of Justice? For starters, any industry that rakes in billions each year, and which bends to the point of breaking well-established definitions of words like “wager” and “get” probably deserves to be looked at in greater detail.
The first of the high-profile stories to draw attention to this industry was a DraftKings employee, who made the mistake of boasting publically that he (allegedly, I suppose) won about $350,000 in a contest run by competitor FanDuel.
That’s a big sum of money, but in and of itself is probably not reason enough for DoJ intervention. The snag here is that he “may have” used inside information about the workings of fantasy sports companies to influence the outcome in his favor.
Since this story broke, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has been interviewing major players in the industry, to get to the bottom of a number of unanswered questions, including the issue of players taking part in contests in states where fantasy sports are already forbidden by law.
Furthermore, the Fantasy Sports Trade Association was issued a grand jury subpoena as part of an in-progress investigation by the state attorney’s office in Tampa, Florida. Similar inquiries are being made in Indiana, Pennsylvania, and Illinois.
Contradictory Laws and Legal Loopholes
If it sounds like the legal framework surrounding these inquiries is a mishmash of investigative efforts, you’d be right, and part of the reason why that’s the case is that federal gambling statutes largely defer to state law, which can be vastly different from state to state. Even such banal distinctions as the definition of “wager” and “gambling” have a role to play in how these investigations will play out in the long run. According to the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, fantasy sports are exempted from being defined as either a bet or a wager.
Further complicating the issue is the longstanding legal gray area concerning “games of skill” and “games of chance.” Admittedly, fantasy sports betting is a mixture of both: there is apparently skill involved in selecting players for one’s fantasy sports team, while chance does steer at least some of what follows from there.
It’s probably fair to say that any federal investigation into the way citizens spend—or wager—their own money could be construed as government overreach. I’m ambivalent, myself; I recognize that gambling is something best left to the discretion of each and every individual person, just as the decision to smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol is a personal one.
The Role of Government in Gambling
But I do believe that any industry that relies even partly on chance to steer the outcome should be subject to federal regulations—not state ones—and certainly not trusted to govern itself. We’re living in a world made possible by the self-governance of major industries and corporations, and in case you haven’t looked out your windows lately, the problems that come from that level of trust are almost too numerous to count.
I get it; gambling is fun. I’m not much of a gambler myself, but I get why it’s so popular, as long as it’s done responsibly and in moderation. And most of the casinos I’ve spent any time in do a pretty good job of informing visitors of the risks associated with this kind of pastime, and providing resources for visitors, as Dover Downs does. They’re quick to point out that gambling is about having fun and spending time with friends and loved ones; when it becomes instead an all-encompassing drive that makes life at home unhappy or endangers our relationships, that’s when you know you have a problem.
But is gambling an activity that should be made illegal? Should it be governed by a hodgepodge of contradictory laws that often don’t reach beyond state lines? Of course not. Make it legal everywhere in these United States for responsible, informed adults, and subject it to reasonable federal oversight and taxation. Simple.
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