The NFL: hypocritical, anti-poker and awesome.
How could my two favorite things have so much in common yet be locked in mortal political combat?
That’s the question I asked when I discovered the following tale of gambling melodrama on my honeymoon. You’ll have to forgive me if I get some minor facts wrong. This is not a blog about politics and I sure as hell am not doing any major research on this stuff. But the gist of the story is this:
The Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) was passed awhile back. While the poker players of the world stood idly by (the Poker Players’ Alliance was only created in the aftermath of bill’s passage), other groups did plenty of lobbying with the friendly Congressmen from the Christian Right who were responsible for the UIGEA. One of these groups was the National Football League, who paid a guy named William Wichterman, a former employee of Rep. Bill Frist, the douchebag who first conceived of the UIGEA, over $200,000 to spearhead their lobbying effort.
Wichterman evidently did a good job, because the law that was passed defines gambling on sports as a prohibited activity but expressly exempts fantasy football (along with state lotteries, trading stocks, horse racing and some other stuff) from the reach of the UIGEA. The NFL’s dual goal of protecting the sanctity of its game from the evil influences of gambling and preserving the rights (and associated income) of millions of dudes like me who play fantasy football was accomplished.
I’m not going to bother discussing the hilarity of the lottery and horse racing exemptions and will focus for now on how big a fucking joke the fantasy football exemption is.
First of all, fantasy football is gambling. It is a game of skill–and that is the exact grounds under which Wichterman advanced the cause for the carve-out it received–but as sure as Brett Favre crams his old white ass into tight pants every Sunday, fantasy football is gambling. Groups of guys all over the United States pool their money, pick their players, then watch their players compete against the other guys’ players, and in the end someone wins the money. You’re betting on players. It’s gambling. But it’s a form of gambling that has become exponentially more popular in the internet age and has somehow never become too socially stigmatized, unless you count calling those who participate nerds. Either way, it is a huge revenue source for the NFL and Mr. Wichterman accomplished his goal of keeping it easy to play.
Second, the fact that the NFL draws a sharp distinction between the supposedly insidious “regular” football gambling and friendly ol’ fantasy football (and successfully lobbied Congress to enact legislation containing that same distinction) is unadulterated bullshit. While I understand that blowing your life’s savings on the Bears/Vikings game in Week 4 is a lot easier to accomplish than losing your entire net worth in a fantasy football league, both forms of gambling are in fact games of skill. And if you don’t believe me on that you’ll just have to trust me.
Also, while fantasy football is a major revenue source, the amount of NFL interest generated by fantasy football is a drop in the proverbial bucket compared to what the mere availability of sides and totals on every game accomplishes. The NFL’s product is perfect for gambling, the numbers are printed in every newspaper in America, it’s legal in Nevada, and hundreds of radio and TV pundits openly discuss these numbers on a daily basis. Everyone, including the NFL, knows that “regular” gambling is a very big part of what makes football America’s game. Gambling on football is as old as the game itself, for god’s sake. It’s still more convenient for the NFL to continue with its “sanctity of the game” charade since they know full-well that the demand for action on its product is strong and inflexible, no matter what they say. It’s better for the NFL to continue with its near-monopoly on sports gambling (look at the numbers sometime, only the NCAA tourney comes close). So the NFL threw a bunch of money around and the UIGEA, tacked onto the back of an anti-terrorism bill, became reality. Like I said earlier, the cardplayers of America were asleep at the switch: the word “poker” never appears anywhere in the legislation and as such is treated the same as the lethal blight of football gambling.
Fast forward a few months:
The UIGEA reads like it was drafted by a drunk nimrod and it didn’t take people long to discover this. The UIGEA requires America’s banking institutions to police themselves by coming up with regulations designed to restrict the flow of money to and from offshore gambling entities. “Easier said than done” is an understatement with regard to accomplishing that, so the banks basically shrugged off this new responsibility and chose to do nothing at all.
In Congressional discussions (what are Congressional discussions called–“sessions” or something?), several groups stepped forward to pronounce the UIGEA and its proposed regulations a big pile of steaming shit. The most vociferous objections came not from sportsbooks, poker sites, degenerate gamblers or libertarians, but from from our country’s banks, who unanimously stated that the regulations would be expensive, wasteful and impossible to enforce. Then a long period of time passed by in which nothing happened.
Then came November 10th, 2008, one week after Obama’s election (and two days after my wedding). On that date, William Wichterman–now no longer as an emissary of the NFL but gainfully employed by the Bush Administration as a “Deputy Director of Public Liaison” (whatever that is)–was up to his old tricks again. Um, it’s been awhile since I took that ethics class, but this sounds a little bit conflict of interest-ish to me. The UIGEA, supposedly at the behest of Wichterman, suddenly became a major priority and the UIGEA regulations became the subject of what is known in political circles as a “midnight drop.” This apparently is what they call it when an outgoing administration pushes through a pet project or two before exiting the premises. And so on November 10th, the Treasury Department finalized the regulations. It remains to be seen what the Obama administration (or for that matter, the banks) will do with them, but they’re on the books for now.
The point of this blog entry isn’t to rehash my slanted version of the history of the UIGEA but rather to highlight the NFL’s role therein and to point out what unlikely enemies poker and the NFL are. Poker and football provide America with two of its greatest pastimes and I with two of my great loves. Not coincidentally, poker and the NFL provide us with two of our country’s most common forms of gambling. Yet while poker must fight for legitimacy (particularly online), the NFL is so powerful that it has been able to influence lawmakers and keep its gambling-infested world in perfect order.
So, to Mr. Roger Goodell and the other bigshots at the NFL I have this to say:
I love your product and would be lost without it.
But kindly eat me.