April 17, 1998

April 17, 1998 | Commentary on Regulation

Don't Rain on My "Field of Dreams"

Baseball season is here again and fans across America are gearing up for another season of non-stop action. These days, opening day not only means our favorite teams are set to take the field again, but, for many of us, it means that close friends and avid baseball fans can gather to live out their boyhood dreams of playing for or managing a major league baseball team.

How do we do this? Well, it's called fantasy or rotisserie league baseball. These leagues bring together about 10 or 12 friends who pretend they are the owners of a big league baseball squad. We choose a team name, draw up some basic ground rules and a scoring system, and draft a hypothetical team of real major league pitchers and batters. And, of course, we throw a little money on the table to bet that our fantasy team will outplay our rivals.

Trust me, as you grow older and your muscles ache after a few swings at the local batting cages, this is about the closest you can get to the real thing. In fact, it's a blast; an average guy's "Field of Dreams." Not only do I participate in fantasy baseball, football and basketball leagues, but sometimes I play on-line through an Internet-based services run by ESPN Sports Zone, CNN-Sports Illustrated, or some other sports Internet site. Playing on-line via the Internet allows me to play with distant friends in other cities who might not be able to travel to Washington to be in one of my leagues.

But this year, I'm not going to participate in any of these on-line Internet leagues. Why? Because I'm scared I might get fined or go to jail if I do.

That's right. Sen. John Kyl, R-Ariz., and Reps. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J., have introduced the Internet Gambling Prohibition Act (IGPA). The intention of the IGPA is clear: "It shall be unlawful for a person to place, receive, or otherwise make a bet or wager, via the Internet or any other interactive computer service in any State." The penalties for violating this broad prohibition are substantial: Fines range from $2,500 to $20,000 with the possibility of six months to four years of jail time as well.

Lawmakers certainly have valid reasons to be concerned about big-time gambling rings or fraudulent activity on the Internet. But the IGPA's prohibitions are so broad that it covers even small-time bets or wagering, like those sometimes (but not always) involved in fantasy sports leagues. The bill does not offer any clarifying language to rule out this possibility. So I have to think that any wager, whether its the $5,000 bets the high rollers make, or merely the $10 to $25 I put down for most fantasy leagues, will now be considered illegal and punishable by federal fines or jail time.

Would the feds launch a campaign against small-time bettors like most of us involved in on-line fantasy sports leagues? Not likely. All they would have to do is shut down one fantasy sports site. The a chilling effect would lead other sites to shut down their operations instead of risking fines or jail time. Even if the federal government didn't bother, that doesn't change the fact that fantasy sports leagues would be illegal under federal law. A crime is a crime. Regular guys don't like the idea of being considered criminals engaged in illegal activities.

Finally, if the feds do enforce these rules, it is likely that some companies will set up offshore operations to provide fans with a way to play their favorite fantasy sport. After all, there are probably tens of thousands of these leagues in existence already, and a federal law is unlikely to curb the appetite for such excitement. Wouldn't it be ironic -- at a time when Cuban baseball refugees are defecting by the dozens to escape government tyranny -- if law-abiding Americans had to depend on Caribbean-based companies to set up fantasy baseball leagues?

If the new Internet betting law passes, neither I nor any of my gamester buddies will be setting up any on-line fantasy baseball, basketball or football leagues this year. After all, we could conceivably face heftier fines or more jail time than most thieves or drug dealers get in this country. If common sense prevails, lawmakers will narrow the language of this bill to deal with the real menace posed by big-time gambling hucksters.

But don't bet on it.

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