Fantasy Sports: A socio-legal look at Fantasy Sports

December 18, 2015


By Reetika Aggarwal – Thompson Rivers University JD Student

Fantasy sports have been around for decades but not until recently has it come under increasing scrutiny from state and federal law-enforcement agencies. Fantasy sports do not qualify as online gambling due to a loophole in the Unlawful Internet Gaming Enforcement Act (UIGEA). The Act allows pay-to-play fantasy sports to operate under federal law, but state regulations can forbid it. Arizona, Iowa, Louisiana, Montana, and Washington already prohibit fantasy-sports games. Fantasy sports sites, such as FanDuel and DraftKings argue that fantasy sports are not games of chance – like poker, slot machines, or roulette – but one of skill.

Skill really can be a factor but the average player is up against an elite few who use elaborate statistical models to assemble rosters engineered to win. Nevada regulators ruled this autumn that daily fantasy sports should be considered gambling and ordered fantasy companies to suspend operations until they secured gaming licenses. Daily fantasy sports operator DraftKings is under investigation from the Department of Justice and the FBI as the government questions the legality of its business model.

But no matter how the law sees it, it is almost impossible in my view to identify daily fantasy as anything but a way to bet on sporting events. The New York Attorney Ggeneral’s office said daily fantasy sports “appears to be creating the same public health and economic problems associated with gambling. The ads on the two sites seriously mislead New York citizens about their prospects of winning.” State investigations found that to date, “the top 1 percent of DraftKings winners receive the vast majority of the winnings.” The National Council on Problem Gambling says it has received reports of “severe gambling problems” in some people who play daily fantasy sports. Arnie Wexler who runs a national gambling help hotline, says fantasy sports are a “gateway drug” to serious problems and lure you into more gambling.

Dr. Timothy Fong, associate clinical professor at the UCLA Gambling Studies Program, is one of America’s leading researchers on the effects of fantasy sports. He is quick to attack the notion that fantasy football is a skill-based game and exempt from gambling concerns. “Very simply, it’s gambling. It’s putting money on an event with a certain outcome in the hopes of winning more money. To call it anything else is really not accurate,” says Dr. Fong.

But that link has not been made by the players and the public that what they are doing is no different than betting at casinos. Dr. Fong describes the four phases: winning, losing, desperation, and hopelessness. He explains that “as the disorder progresses, there is not only an increase in amounts wagered and time devoted to gambling, but an increase in feelings of shame, guilt, helplessness, and depression. Some gamblers will turn to illegal activities and do things that were previously thought inconceivable; twenty percent will attempt suicide.

There may be the development or exacerbation of other mental disorders, notably anxiety and depressive disorders and other addictive disorders. Stress-related physical illnesses are also common.” The line between recreation and addiction is clear: if playing fantasy sports improves the quality of your life, it’s a fine hobby. If playing involves lying, stealing, and disassociating from loved ones, well, you have a problem. Dr. Fong states, “you’re putting money up on an event of uncertain outcome in expectation or hope of winning a larger reward. That is the definition of gambling.” He has seen patients lose $50,000 in one season. While screening patients, he finds they struggle with the game’s residual effects. Dr. Fong explains, “[It’s the] same kind of flavor, same kind of addictive process… Same sense of thrill, the same dopamine rush.”

You cannot ignore the element of chance in fantasy football. Gambling can be defined as wagering money on an uncertain outcome, such as a last-minute fumble that wins a player more than a million dollars. Advanced research will not predict random injuries of a player or if secretive coaches will abruptly bench a player a week after he scored four touchdowns. At the same time, some skill can be found in almost every form of gambling, as long as there is decision that can be made. There is a lot of variance in daily fantasy results and no guarantee that skill trumps chance. Perception of skill is a big factor in the development of addiction and in continuously playing to win back lost money.


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