The outrageous fortune of fantasy sports

The rising popularity of ‘daily fantasy sports,’ driven mainly by those gambling on imaginary teams, is now under scrutiny. Government officials must avoid the tired debate over whether such games are ones of skill or ‘luck.’

AP Photo
Len Don Diego, marketing manager for content at DraftKings, a daily fantasy sports company, works at his station at the company's offices in Boston. New York's attorney general has sent letters to daily fantasy sports websites DraftKings and FanDuel on Oct. 6 demanding they turn over details of any investigations into their employees.

Millions of Americans now gamble on “fantasy sports,” which are related to real games of football, baseball, basketball, or hockey. Fans pick a roster of individual players from different teams to create an imaginary team. They rely on statistics or mere guesses. Then many of them place bets with online sites such as DraftKings or FanDuel and wait to see if their team “wins,” based on real games. They are competing against other fans, who may know less or more about each player.

The websites that take money from these fans claim the contests are purely a matter of skill (or ignorance). At least five states disagree. Companies like DraftKings do not operate in those states. State courts are also divided on how much skill is involved in games involving betting. And with the rapid growth of gambling on “daily” fantasy sports, many states, as well as a few members of Congress, are beginning to ask if fans treat these contests as games of “luck,” much like those in a casino, the lottery, or a horse race.

Government officials are right to ask if betting on fantasy sports might have negative moral consequences, such as sports teams being corrupted by criminals to throw a game or fans becoming gambling addicts. Worldwide, a rise in online sports gambling has triggered worries about sports losing their integrity or fans watching games more for the thrill of winning money than the thrill of watching a team’s performance.

The concern about potential corruption was indirectly confirmed this week when DraftKings admitted that one of its employees with inside information was found betting on the FanDuel website. Both sites now forbid employees from such a dubious practice.

But as regulators, prosecutors, and lawmakers take a closer look at fantasy sports, they must be careful about using the word “luck.” An event that happens, such as the outcome of a sports contest, only has the meaning we attach to it. Whether something is the result of “good luck” or “bad luck” is merely a matter of the significance given to it in thinking. Many things happen with no notion of “chance” ascribed to them.

State court judges are often asked to determine whether a game that involves betting requires “luck” more than skill, with luck defined by estimates or mathematical odds. Such debates, however, must eventually ask if events such as a fantasy game have causes that can be determined, perhaps not now but someday. Human thinking has made much progress in understanding causation, whether in science or religion, and will continue to do so. We know much more about the motives for altruism, for example, or the order of the physical universe.

Making predictions in any field is based on a person’s current state of knowledge and should not be limited by ascribing the unknown to “luck,” as if it is a force unto itself. Keeping sports clean and people free of gambling addiction requires a clear understanding of that point.

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