But a House panel hearing on Friday offered a bit of levity, as a Baltimore County lawmaker drew his colleagues’ attention to a less contentious issue: fantasy football.
Del. John Olszewski Jr. (D) tried to win support from the Ways and Means Committee for a bill that would explicitly allow Marylanders to compete for cash and prizes in fantasy sports leagues.
While federal anti-gambling laws specifically exempt fantasy sports, Maryland is one of a few states that could potentially punish people who play for cash in such leagues.
“All we’re asking is to give our residents the same opportunity that most other folks around the country enjoy,” Olszewski said.
For the uninitiated, playing in a fantasy sports league involves assembling an imaginary team of real athletes and pitting it against other imaginary teams, with results determined by the athletes’ real-world statistical performances.
Olszewski said players in Maryland were “ensnared” by a 2006 opinion on poker tournaments issued by the state’s attorney general’s office, which said gambling includes any game that requires decisions, the element of chance and a prize.
That opinion is a major reason fantasy football league organizers such as CBS and ESPN exclude Marylanders from winning prizes, Olszewski said.
“Our residents are technically not allowed to win T-shirts or a trophy. It goes beyond the cash piece of it,” he said in an interview before the hearing.
He was joined by members of the Fantasy Sports Trade Association.
Travis McCoy, a lobbyist for the association, told lawmakers that fantasy sports is a “mainstream” hobby that “fathers and sons can play together.”
Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg (D-Baltimore), a sports enthusiast who is also vice-chair of the committee, jokingly remarked that he doesn’t play fantasy sports because it could clash with rooting for his home team.
“How can you justify —” he began, before being cut off by laughter from his colleagues.
“I’m for the bill, but that’s my problem,” he said.
After the hearing, Olszewski said he was cheered by Rosenberg’s comment.
“It was great the the vice-chair sort of openly expressed his support for the bill,” he said. “Everyone I’ve talked to in the committee is either supportive or doesn’t seem to have any real opposition to it. So I think it’s just a question of if it’s brought to a vote or not,” he said.
The hearing lasted only 15 minutes, in sharp contrast to a bill before the same committee earlier in the day that would authorize a casino in Prince George’s County. That bill drew three hours’ worth of testimony from dozens of witnesses.