The state’s General Assembly reconvenes Wednesday. One of the measures it will take up this session is House Bill 7, which should offer a bit of levity from bitter debates over same-sex marriage, septic systems, gas taxes and the other usual partisan issues that typically ruin a nice day.
House Bill 7’s title: “AN ACT concerning Criminal Law – Betting, Wagering, and Gambling – Fantasy Competition.”
Ladies and gentleman of Maryland, we are now legislating fantasy football.
But we play for a cash prize — I assume many of the tens of thousands of other Marylanders who play fantasy sports do, too— and that might make us criminals. While federal law has exempted fantasy sports from gambling laws, Maryland law is ambiguous at best, and punishing at worst, on the matter.
Back in 2006, the state attorney general’s office issued an opinion on poker tournaments that seems to ensnare fantasy sports players. (For the novices: Fantasy sports, played by more than 35 million Americans, involves choosing players and setting lineups for imaginary teams that play other imaginary teams in games that feel very, very real.)
The opinion said any game that requires decisions, the element of chance and a prize is gambling. That opinion, according to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association, is a key reason why major fantasy football league organizers — including CBS, ESPN and others — forbid Marylanders to compete for prizes.
While no fantasy football players have been prosecuted in Maryland or nationally, Del. John Olszewski Jr. wants state law to be definitive on the matter so fantasy sports players can compete for prizes without fearing their next lineup change will be phoned in from the House of Corrections.
Olszewski, a Democrat from Dundalk, introduced House Bill 7, as the legislation says, “FOR the purpose of exempting certain fantasy competitions from gaming prohibitions; defining a certain term; and generally relating to fantasy competitions.”
Olszewski has skin in this game. He’s an active fantasy football player. For 2011-12, he finished first in the regular season but was crushed in the playoffs. (Me too. It hurts.) Fully legalizing fantasy sports in Maryland has been on his agenda for awhile.
In 2008, he asked the Department of Legislative Services to research the issue, and a policy analyst concluded that fantasy sports were not, in fact, gambling. The analyst wrote, “The competition tests the talent and relative sports knowledge of participants and therefore constitutes a game of skill, rather than one of chance.”
That opinion emboldened Olszewski to file his bill.
“This is a very simple fix that will resolve the question for individuals, for family and friends who play together and for those who want to compete in a national contest,” he told me the other day. “Given the amount of people who play fantasy sports, this is not a niche issue.”
But that doesn’t mean Olszewski won’t be mocked for taking up fantasy sports when the state has other pressing matters to contend with — like, you know, not having enough money.
Olszewski says he is prepared to handle such blowback, and when I brought up the potential criticism with him he was quick to point out that he is also focusing on other issues, including the economy, jobs and fighting the gas tax.
“Fortunately, I can do more than one thing at a time,” he said. “You don’t have to spend a lot of time on this. I don't think you should be afraid to do other things that impact residents of Maryland if there will be benefits.”