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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Hold the line against sports gambling

Illinois last week became the latest state to take the right step by banning fantasy sports games, a move that exposes how other states — notably Florida — need to similarly move to protect the public.

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan declared that fantasy sports contests offered by major operators DraftKings and FanDuel constituted gambling and therefore violated state law. Her move followed the lead of New York and Nevada, which have taken steps to shut down the operations. On Thursday, a day after Madigan's order, the two companies, in separate lawsuits, sought to overturn the ban. The Illinois case centers on the same question — whether these games amount to skill or chance — that is at the heart of the dispute across the country.

Companies like DraftKings and FanDuel operate the multibillion-dollar online games through daily and weekly sports leagues in which participants pay an entry fee to draft football or baseball players for a make-believe team. The real-game statistics for those players are compared to those of players chosen by other entrants for a chance to win prizes. While the companies promise payouts in the billions, records show that a vast majority of players on the websites lose money. That's why responsible regulators across the nation are cracking down — and why states like Florida with large numbers of players need to side squarely with the public's interest.

Then-Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth concluded a quarter-century ago that pay-to-play fantasy sports games are illegal under the state's gambling laws. But not a single company has been prosecuted in Florida. The current attorney general, Pam Bondi, has said she has no plans to revisit the issue and will instead leave the matter to the U.S. attorney. A federal grand jury in Tampa has reportedly begun an investigation.

But the state's top law enforcement officer has an obligation to enforce state law. Whatever the federal issues at play, Bondi has a responsibility to either uphold her predecessor's finding or issue a fresh one of her own. Some 3 million Floridians take part in fantasy games, giving the state a compelling interest in drawing a clear line between what is legal and what is not.

Bondi's failure to act has also given fantasy sports operators and their allies in the Legislature the opportunity to seek a carve-out in the law that would legalize these games. Legislation filed in November would legitimize the games on the cheap and create a new wrinkle in Florida's limited and highly regulated gambling environment.

The states need to speak with a single voice, and Florida should avoid taking a piecemeal approach to gambling policy. The state shut down Internet cafes in 2013 because the virtual arcades preyed on older people. There is a need for the same public and consumer protections here. The attorney general should act to hold the line on gambling and to preserve the integrity of Florida's statutes.