Fans and fantasies

Houston, Texas

With their comparatively high appetite for risk and passion for free and open markets you would think Americans would be among the world’s biggest punters. And yet, gambling in the US – or perhaps lack thereof – is one of the nation’s great contradictions. This most freedom-loving of people, in which the principles of risk and reward are deeply ingrained, somehow allow policymakers to place highly restrictive regulations on gaming, including outright bans in most states, often with little organised opposition.

The same people who bristle at the thought of their firearm rights being taken away are generally supportive of restrictions on arguably far less dangerous pursuits like blackjack and sports betting.

Gambling prohibitionists in the US have not been satisfied with casino bans in the vast majority of states but have turned their attention online. In 2011, the country’s three most prominent online poker websites were shut down, freezing the accounts of thousands of American poker enthusiasts.

Now the FBI is embarking on an investigation into the wildly popular world of Fantasy Football. Perhaps in response to a highly regulated mainstream gambling industry, or perhaps in spite of it, online fantasy sports leagues in the US – in which punters can win literally millions of dollars in prize money each week – have rapidly emerged and have taken root in pop culture.

In fact, American Express anticipated at the beginning of this NFL season that as many as 75 million Americans would play Fantasy Football this year.

That’s three times the Australian population. Let that sink in.

Like online poker’s ‘black friday’, the FBI investigation into fantasy sports sites – and specifically into allegations of insider trading – could see thousands, if not millions, of americans have their accounts frozen by the Feds, with years of subsequent litigation to retrieve what is rightfully theirs.

If your initial instinct, like mine, is one of surprise, it’s worth keeping in mind that in the US psyche, not all vices are equal.

While efforts to prohibit alcohol were short-lived and ultimately unsuccessful, resulting only in a proliferation of organised crime so well documented by Hollywood over the years, and tobacco remains a legitimate product in much of the country, gambling has often been a more contentious pursuit.

The Puritan settlers of the early east coast colonies outlawed possession of dice, cards and gaming tables (as well as dancing and singing). Boy would they be dismayed to see modern day Atlantic City operating on their once-hallowed turf.

The states subsequently took varying positions resulting in infamous gaming havens such as Vegas and Indian reservations across the country where federal and state gaming regulations do not apply.

Anyone with even a casual familiarity with Australia – where every pub has a casino attached and betting odds are displayed onscreen at half-time – will know this is one of the key areas in which our two cultures diverge. But why?

Partly it has to do with a socio-religious opposition to gambling as a devious and un-pious activity, perhaps inspired by Jesus’s overturning of the tables in the Temple as described in the New Testament.

But while the Christian influence can never be dismissed in America, I think it has more to do with America’s attitudes towards money.

While from the outside looking in we often think of American capitalism as a system of unrestrained hedonism, I think many supporters of free markets here are more cautiously-minded than you may assume.

Free and open markets are worshipped not for their inherent liberty and chaos, but because they are the best vehicles we have invented for sustaining growth and retirement income. It is a cautious prudence with money, and not a gambling instinct, that drives many Americans to fiscal conservatism and aversion to taxes.

Viewed through this prism, gambling is a sin not because the Bible says so but because to throw away money shows a callous disregard for the American dream, for saving and planning and the white picket fence.

Given we are descended primarily from Irish former prisoners and not protestant Puritans turned off by a sinful English establishment, Australians by contrast have largely seen wealth as a necessary evil, a tool by which happiness can be attained, not as valuable in its own right.

As a longtime cuplrit of credit card debt and over-consumption, as I get older, and as I am exposed to the American ethic, I see naturally that wealth and retirement planning are important.

But I also struggle with the conflicted logic that sees guns as inalienable rights but gambling as legitimate fodder for regulation.

Gambling is not a smart way to spend your money and arguably Australia has a problem.

But sending in the Feds to confiscate your Fantasy Football earnings is just downright un-American.


Published on 21 October 2015