The Real Question about Fantasy Sports Gambling the GOP Debate Missed


In this clown-car of a GOP primary, it’s inevitable that the discussion will sometimes veer onto more superficial avenues of questioning. After all, news is entertainment and a little light-hearted banter can be the spice that makes the meal more palatable. But, by most accounts, the CNBC moderators in last night’s debate were all fluff and no substance. At one point, in what was one of the strongest moments of the debate, Chris Christie mocked the moderators for their superficial questions. “Are we really talking about getting government involved in fantasy football,” he asked to wild audience applause.

While Christie was correct that the question of whether the government should treat online daily fantasy sports betting as “gambling” wasn’t very substantive, but there was a question they could have asked or followed up with that would have been not only entertaining, but also would have enlightened viewers about the fitness of the candidates to lead the GOP. That question would have been: do you think the federal government should regulate or ban state-based online gambling or should the states be able to make that decision?

Recently, daily fantasy sports (or DFS) has received unwanted attention from lawmakers and state attorneys. While the proprietors of sites like DraftKings and FanDuel insist that their activities violate no federal laws, some observers have become increasingly skeptical about that claim and believe that the line between fantasy sports betting and just plain old sports betting has been blurred. During the debate Quintanilla asked Jeb Bush if daily fantasy sports, which “will award billions in prize money this year,” qualifies as gambling and if the federal government should “treat it as such?”

Bush responded first with humorous comments about how well his fantasy team is performing, but then touched on the current scandal within the industry. It was revealed that an employee of DraftKings recently made $350,000 on their rival site, FanDuel. Bush said that DFS was effectively “day trading without any regulation at all. And when you have insider information, which apparently has been the case, where people use that information and use big data to try to take advantage of it, there has to be some regulation.” Bush questioned whether the federal government would be the appropriate entity to impose such regulations and came to the conclusion that “my instinct is to say, hell no, just about everything about the federal government.”

At this point, Chris Christie (the most relevant candidate to ask a candidate about gambling since he represents one of three states that has legal online gambling) chimed in. “How about this? How about we get the government to do what they’re supposed to be doing, secure our borders, protect our people, and support American values and American families. Enough on fantasy football. Let people play, who cares?” The audience seemed to respond to Christie’s mocking the moderators for the frivolous question. It would have been shrewd for Quintanilla or one of his co-moderators to respond by noting that the question of online gambling relates to an issue of grave importance to conservative voters—where the candidates do or do not truly support the Tenth Amendment and the idea that the states should have the power to regulate intrastate activities without interference from the federal government—even when it comes to an activity like gambling.

CNBC is widely regarded as having a liberal bias, but it wouldn’t have taken much research to realize that in his answer, Bush was attempting to paint himself as a defender of the Tenth Amendment by displaying skepticism toward having the federal government get involved in online fantasy sports. Had the moderators been familiar with conservative ideology or the issue of online gambling, they might have noted that on the dais there were candidates that have had less than consistent views of this particular aspect of the constitution. 

One of the candidates on the stage, Marco Rubio, has co-sponsored legislation to create this very kind of federal ban—a ban that would directly impact another candidate, Chris Christie’s state since New Jersey legalized online casino gambling in 2013. It could have been an informative, substantive, and entertaining discussion. Instead, the candidates were given more airtime to discuss issues that have little bearing on which among them are fit to lead our nation.

So what should the American public take away from the discussion? One could argue that despite the candidates’ views on the frivolity of discussing fantasy football in a presidential debate, one thing is clear: When federal regulation in our country has reached the point of disrupting fantasy football, there is no longer a question of if the federal government is overreaching. The only question that remains is who will do something about it?