Category Archives: Fantasy

Arizona Legalizes Sport Gambling

Followers of my blog will know that I support the legalization of gambling, including wagering on sports. So I was excited to learn this morning that the governor of my state (Arizona) signed into law a bill that legalizes sports betting. The bill also includes daily fantasy sports and other forms of fantasy sports wagering. This site has a good summary of the legal changes.

Some of my blog posts on sports, gambling, and fantasy:


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CFP: Fantasy Sports Panel

This interesting looking call for a panel at the American Studies Association Annual Meeting (Chicago, November 9-12, 2017) came my way, so I’m passing it on:

The Humanities on Fantasy Sports

From humble beginnings, fantasy sports have grown into a cultural phenomenon in which more than 57 million North Americans now participate. Given their immense popularity, however, the scholarly attention dedicated to them remains modest by comparison, particularly in the humanities. The vast majority of research done on fantasy sports derives from the social sciences and generally focuses on legal, economic, and sports management issues. This panel seeks to expand the parameters of fantasy sports scholarship, to give scholars within the humanities an opportunity to intervene in current debates on the subject and to generate their own. It is an attempt to open previously unexplored avenues for fantasy sports research that will broaden the philosophical, theoretical, cultural and intercultural, geographical, historical, and/or disciplinary scope of the field. To this end, I seek contributions on the intersection of fantasy sports and philosophy, critical theory, history, rhetorical theory, cultural studies, game studies, and/or literature. I am especially interested in abstracts that address issues of internationalization, unconventional gameplay, uncommon fantasy sports, philosophical and theoretical approaches, alternative genealogies, community and communities, and ethics. All abstracts with a clear relationship to the humanities will be strongly considered.

If you would like your work to be considered for this panel, please send 300-word abstracts to Andrew J. Ploeg at by Sunday, January 29th, 2017.  If you have any questions, feel free to email.

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Teaching Economics of Sports: The Big Leagues

From time to time I invite colleagues to write a guest post for The Sports Ethicist. In this post, I asked my ASU colleauge, Brian Goegan, to write about a model he uses for teaching “Economics of Sports”. Brian is a Clinical Assistant Professor in the 
Department of Economics here at ASU and uses this fantasy-like game to teach the his students about the economics of sports. If you are an ASU student and interested in sports, you should look into taking this course (as well as my Sports Ethics course).

The Big Leagues

Sports provide an endless number of great examples that can be used in the economics classroom, and countless teachers have drawn on them for a wide range of courses and topics. But for a class on the Economics of Sports, I thought I’d try making the example the lesson. In fact, I have built a syllabus which revolves almost entirely around an elaborate simulation of the sporting world which I call The Big Leagues.

In my section of 68 students, we have organized into 30 teams, each owned by a group of two of three students. In their groups, students must manage their franchise, making decisions about where to locate, how big and how nice their stadium should to be, what strategy to take to win games, what prices to set, and what coach to hire. As a league, students must also grapple with a Players Association and vote on the rules which will govern their league. All the while, they need to manage their books, and make sure they end the game with enough profit to buy their grade for this portion of the class.

By acting as the owners, students end up experiencing the lessons they’d learn from a Sports Economics class first hand. Leagues collude to keep player salaries down, and are combated by the players’ union that threatens to strike. When the league is dominated by one or two teams, and matches are no longer competitive, fan interest (and TV revenue) declines. My game also allows owners to dope their players in secret, boosting their performance at the risk of being found out, and each semester I get to see an institution deal with the fan and media wrath after a huge swath of players get caught, voting to impose fines and punishments on each other. They also have to work through complicated formulas and gut instinct to figure out what the profit maximizing prices for their tickets and luxury boxes are, the bread and butter of any good economics class.

The list of complexities goes on and on. Stadiums degrade, players develop across seasons, owners choose actions which influence both of those things, players have ‘suits’ which have combination effects when put on a team with other players, teams can field substitute players, different general managers and different coaches enhance different strategies both for profits and for wins, and contracts with players can include different clauses that give the teams different options down the road. The rulebook for The Big Leagues is 21 pages long, but as one of my students put it recently, “the more you play the smaller the game gets.” In other words, it is a lot easier to understand that it sounds. To make sure they get all the lessons the game has to teach, I devote about 50% of my class time to it. The other 50% is devoted to linking up their choices and outcomes in the game to the real world.

Given its complexity and startup costs, I wouldn’t expect a lot of instructors to adopt the game. And that isn’t even mentioning all of the spreadsheet maintenance and troubleshooting needed to keep the game running from season to season. What I can report though is its effectiveness. Like the proverbial frog in boiling water, little economic lessons are incrementally imparted with every decision the students make in the game, and they barely realize how much they’ve learned until I point it out to them. And given my discipline’s disinterest in finding alternatives to the lecture-based format, they also find it to be a refreshing change of pace.

If you would like to learn more about The Big Leagues, please feel free to contact me at

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Daily Fantasy, Gambling, and Sports

In the recent ‘scandal’ surrounding Daily Fantasy (DFS), it is frequently referenced as ‘gambling’. So one question in all this, is Daily Fantasy gambling?

Legal Definition

As in many such discussions, a large part of the issue depends on the definition. In this case what do we mean by ‘gambling’? Most states, and the federal government, use what is often called the ‘dominant factor test’. Essentially, the test is whether the outcomes of the game are more due to chance or due to skill. In general, if you can see players with greater skill winning the game more often than non-skilled players, that’s a good sign that the dominant factor is skill and not chance. Thus, such a game wouldn’t qualify as gambling under this description. (I want to thank the panel at ISLE symposium for the legal background.)

Fantasy (including Daily Fantasy) does seem to show that skill plays a large and dominant part in winning, rather than chance. Luck and chance play a role (e.g. players get injured), but a fantasy player’s knowledge and skill in drafting and building lineups is much more significant.

There are some states, including my own (Arizona), that don’t use this test and have a lower bar for considering something gambling. Thus Daily Fantasy is illegal in Arizona. (The other such states where DFS is illegal: Arkansas, Delaware, Iowa, Louisiana, Michigan, Montana, Tennessee, and Washington).

Common Usage

But beyond the legal definition, we might wonder what gambling means in more common usage and if daily fantasy fits that.

If we mean just any situation where you take a big chance, where you put something of significant value at risk, then a lot of things are ‘gambling,’ including fantasy. But so, it would seem, is the primary game of football itself. People use the term ‘gambling’ in ways like this all the time (I’m taking a gamble on taking the job offer in Austin over the one in Dallas), but this is not helpful in understanding the phenomenon at issue. We need to put aside these metaphorical usages and narrow our focus.

Gambling, then, usually refers to games where:

(1) The value at stake is financial or material (as opposed to an emotional value like pride or enjoyment).

(2) The role of chance is significant in the outcome. This is not just that the outcome is unknown but that chance plays a role in determining the outcome (e.g. roll of the dice, a random number generator, or the deal of the cards). It also means that the player is passive in terms of the outcome; that is, there isn’t anything they can do to affect the outcome.

(3) There is some financial/material prize for winning.

If I am correct, Daily Fantasy is not gambling because it fails #2. Namely, the main cause of winning is how one uses his or her skill and knowledge to create a line up. Chance plays a role, but the players are not passive. The more skill they have and the better they employ it, the better their chances of winning.

Paraphrasing Jerry Seinfeld, not that there is anything wrong with gambling. That is, even if DFS were gambling, I don’t think that matters from a moral perspective unless we have a prior argument that gambling is morally problematic. I don’t think we have such an argument. It matters, certainly, from a legal perspective given the current prohibitions in most states against gambling. (Prohibitions with which for the most part I disagree.)

Gambling and Sport

That said, the concern about gambling and sports is that there is big money at stake in gambling and the potential for, or even just the appearance of, corruption or interference in the game itself. There is, I think, a similar concern with daily fantasy. The professional sport leagues need to be careful here in working with fantasy companies. First, they need to make sure there isn’t any corruption going on. They need to have transparent and clear safeguards to prevent undue influence between the fantasy and the real games. Second, they need to make sure there isn’t even an appearance of anything corrupt. The same goes for the DFS companies themselves: the appearance of corruption is almost as damaging as actual corruption.

I don’t think there is a concern with the kind of marketing agreements between the leagues and the fantasy companies that we are seeing. The KC Royals have an official daily fantasy sponsor, but the sponsor doesn’t lose or gain anything depending on the Royals’ performances. So there is no real worry about the daily fantasy company trying to manipulate the game in the way a gambler might try to get a player to shave points or throw a game. The fantasy companies earn money by people participating, not according to the performances of a player/team.

But there could be concerns about players, coaches, officials, or others who can impact the outcome of games. They might have something personally at stake and use their position to manipulate the game so that outcome is achieved and they win. It might be best to prohibit or, in the case of the NFL, limit the participation of these individuals in such games. This wouldn’t be too dissimilar from a radio station employee not being eligible for the station’s contests. It prevents even the appearance of corruption.

The DFS scandal

Similar, the recent scandal involving DraftKings and FanDuel seems more about the appearance of corruption than actual corruption.

The information released, though not trivial, doesn’t strike me as the significant advantage that some have painted it. As I understand it, the information showed the percentage of players owned. Knowing what other players are owned can figure into your calculations about whom to start (in order to differentiate your team from the other teams). Nevertheless, I think most knowledgeable fantasy players probably have fairly good intuitions about this anyway. They won’t have the exact numbers, of course, but most will know, for example, that a good chunk of people are going to have Aaron Rogers as QB. Knowing the exact number doesn’t seem like it is going to make that big a difference. Still, it is not irrelevant or trivial information and safeguards (or at least better safeguards) should be in place regarding this information.

The real worry here is not the leaked information. It is that individuals at the company have access to this information when it is non-public and could, it seems, act on it. That seems like an unfair advantage (though we could quibble about that) and so people are concerned that the insiders at DFS companies could use this information to dominate leagues. Again, we could quibble about the fairness, appropriateness, or effectiveness of this. Nevertheless, the appearance that so-called insiders could be taking advantage of the market undermines the trust between players and fantasy leagues. So even if nothing untoward is actually going on, it is still damaging to this relationship and needs a transparent fix. The obvious fix seems to be, similar to the NFL limitation, a contractual prohibition or limit on playing DFS for individuals with access to this non-public, advantageous information. Companies that do not fix their trust dimension will lose out in the marketplace.

Regulating DFS

I don’t play DFS (mostly because it is illegal in AZ). But I think it is an exciting and dynamic industry. It highlights how markets can respond to individual tastes and desires in unforeseen and creative ways. What I fear from this situation is that lawmakers and regulators will come in and in the name of consumer protection or some such thing, kill or weaken this growing market. This situation certainly shows that the industry needs to make some changes as it matures. Competition and consumers should drive those changes and will do so in ways we can’t predict, finding solutions to problems in fitting and creative ways. Government regulations, on the other hand, will tend to hamper and prevent such dynamism; imposing one-size fits all, costly rules. The likely outcome of government regulation of DFS, based on what normal happens in regulated industries, is the cartelization into a few dominant players (instead of today’s dynamic and growing field of competition) and the locking in of current practices and standards (instead of seeing ingenuity and development of new more effective and appropriate practices).

Lastly, if I had to gamble I would bet (see what I did there?) that the main forces driving the ‘regulate DFS bus’ are those connected in some way to the heavily regulated gaming/gambling industry. DFS is a competitor and this would be an easy way to weaken it. (One might compare this to Uber and the taxi companies—the same phenomenon seems to be at work there: a dynamic new business is threatening the old way of doing things, providing greater choice and options to meet individual desires and needs in unforeseen ways.)


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Ethics and Fantasy Sports

This is the text of my remarks from Santa Clara University’s Institute of Sports Law & Ethics 2015 Sports Law and Ethics Symposium. The Symposium was held on September 10, 2015. I was on the” Fantasy Sports: Gaming, IP, Ethical and Other Issues” panel. The symposium was great, I want to thank ISLE for inviting me.

This panel is made up of lawyers and industry leaders who have direct involvement in the business of fantasy sports. I’m an academic philosopher who plays fantasy sports purely for fun. So, my approach is probably going to be a little different.

As a philosopher, I seek the deeper, more fundamental meaning of things. As an ethicist, I look at this deeper meaning and try to see what it tells us about how best to act. In this case, what does understanding the nature of fantasy sport tell us about how to act regarding fantasy sports? My time is limited, so I will point towards some of the ethical concerns in fantasy sport, and close with some of the positives.

Fellow sports philosopher, Chad Carlson, dubs Fantasy Sports: “parasitic, second order, or derivative games because they find life only by building off of real sports’ elements.”[1]  Fantasy is driven by the real sport, without the football there is no fantasy football. This makes them games about other games. Calling them parasitic suggests something negative about this relationship; that fantasy feeds off and harms its host sport. But before addressing that concern, it is important to see that fantasy sport, though a game that is built off another game, is still truly a game: it has its own distinct goals and methods. It has its own rules, structures, and traditions.

But this derivative nature of fantasy does lead to a group of objections to fantasy. These objections are all roughly based on the concern that fantasy sports are changing the way we understand, consume, or appreciate sport. The derivative game is affecting the primary game and, according to these objections, that’s wrong.

There are concerns that the popularity of fantasy will and has driven rule changes to the primary game. This direct effect on the game could be a concern if it undermines or weakens the primary game. One wonders how much of the NFL rule changes in the last decade that have driven up offensive numbers were driven by the popularity of fantasy. (As a side note, I don’t think those changes came about because of fantasy—but it is not hard to see how that could have happened.)

Fantasy, particularly fantasy football, tends to overemphasize certain features of the game over others. In general, offense is emphasized over defense. Certain positions, like QB or WR, are emphasized over other essential positions, like left guard or a blocking TE. These latter positions are essential for competitive teams to be able to play offense well, but they are not tracked by fantasy (at least not directly). This tends to skew our understanding of the game of football in one direction.

A related concern is that Fantasy negatively affects our fandom. In real football, most fans root for a team to win. We want the Patriots or, I guess, the 49ers to win. We value the importance of the team and teamwork. But, in fantasy we root not for the team but the individual players, and only for as long as they are on our team. In some cases, shockingly to me, fantasy players might root against their own real team for the sake of fantasy. In their study of the fantasy industry, Andrew Billings and Brody Ruihley report that 41% of all fantasy participants indicated they would prefer a win by their fantasy team over their regular/favorite team.”[2]

Fans might come to prefer to watch something like the Red Zone channel instead of a game in its entirety. This breaks up our sense of the continuity and narrative of the game of football. If we only watch scoring plays or highlight plays, we don’t really know how the game went. We don’t really understand how the teams played. I know that when I have missed a game and just get the highlights, I have one impression of the game that can be quite different and misleading from the one I get when I get around to watching the tape of the game. So if fantasy shifts our consumption shifts more and more towards individual players and their highlight moments, we lose a certain aspect of what the primary, real game is about.

I don’t have the space to fully flesh this out, but one response to this spectator corruption argument is that fantasy is not the cause of this trend, but an effect. That is, fantasy might just be popular because it is tapping into a pre-existing desire to watch football in this manner. It might be that the only reason we sat and watched one team for the whole game and watched that team week in week out is that prior to satellite, one just didn’t have any other options. Now one has a myriad of consumption options, and this has opened up fandom in new ways. That seems to be a good thing for fans.

Fantasy as Gambling

A second group of concerns about fantasy sports is that it is just a kind of gambling. It is not, according to these objections, based on superior skill, effort, or knowledge but luck. First, even if this is true—and I don’t think it is—it’s not clear that this is an objection to fantasy without a second argument that gambling is itself wrong. Second, while a fantasy player does not have as much agency or ability to affect the fantasy game outcome as the running back or the coach does in real football, the fantasy player does have to draft well, adjust his or her line up, and make other important changes that will bear on the outcome. A fantasy player’s skill and knowledge at doing this affects their chances of winning. Much like words with friends (a scrabble-like game), you have reduced agency. You can only play the letter tiles you are dealt. It doesn’t really matter how good you are, if all you draw is vowels, you are not going to do well. Nevertheless, you still have some ability by employing one’s skill and knowledge to affect the outcome.

In-Game Fantasy Ethics

An area of fantasy sports ethics that I am very interested in is the ethics of playing fantasy. By this, I mean how should fantasy players play? Are there ethical issues here? Let me suggest a few.

One is the potential conflict of interest when the commissioner of a league is also a player in the league. This is usually the case, and it opens up the potential for the commissioner to set the game in his or her favor. I don’t know how often this occurs, but the potential conflict is something that one needs to be aware of.

Another is the potential for more knowledgeable players to take advantage of newbies in terms of trades or staking out the waiver wires. This seems unfair and it can lead to a lack of competitive balance.

A frequent problem in fantasy leagues is the ghost team. This is the team owner that, because of extended absence or lack of attentiveness, fails to set their line-ups properly, starts injured players, or starts guys in their bye week. This tends to upset the balance of leagues and undermines the playfulness of the game. Failing to keep one’s team up-to-date and the lineups set is a failure to meet one’s obligations as a fantasy player.

One of my friends had drafted Adrian Peterson for his team last year. He was outraged, like most people, at the stories being reported about Peterson’s overly aggressive physical punishments–even abuse–of his children. He faced a dilemma: should he still start Peterson? Should he hold onto Peterson in case he came back that year? This was not special to my friend or Peterson. In discussing the Peterson case with my friend, I realized I had the Carolina defense which starred, at the time, Greg Hardy who was accused of domestic violence. I faced the same dilemma, should I start that defense?

This is an interesting question for fandom in general. When the players we root for get into trouble—legally or morally—how should we respond? Do we withdraw our support immediately and completely? Which offenses go too far? In terms of being a fan, rooting for the player does seem to impart some approval or at least sanction to the player. So the issue of fan support is somewhat clearer: if a player has done something that you can’t support or be a part of as a fan, you should withdraw your support.

But, in regards to fantasy, how much does drafting and starting a player constitute sanctioning or condoning the athlete’s behavior? Should one refuse to draft any players from the Washington Redskins? What about a Michael Vick or a Ray Rice? I don’t have a clear idea of what the right answers are to these questions.

Too often, conversations about ethics are all negative. They focus too much on when people step over the line or violate norms. But ethics should also be about the positive, the aspirational, the ideals we shoot for as we attempt to live a flourishing and good life. So I want to close my comments by focusing on three positives of fantasy sport.

One, playing fantasy sports is a great way to build community: it’s a way of staying connected to old friends and making new ones. In one league, I stay connected to friends from grad school that I probably would have lost touch with a long time ago. Matthew Berry, best known as the Talented Mr. Roto, said in his book on fantasy:

“…the truth is it’s all about the people. It’s not the draft, it’s not the trash talk or the punishments, it’s not even the winning (okay, maybe it’s a little bit the winning). It’s the people. It’s the people who make the draft and the trash talk and the punishments and the winning what it is.”[3]

In an age when friends and family can live far apart from each other, fantasy is one way to build, maintain, and deepen that community and connection with our friends and family.

Another important value from fantasy is knowledge. Fantasy requires one to learn more about the real game. To do well at fantasy requires one have a good understanding of the game and the players. You can’t draft a left guard, but you better know if the QB you drafted has a good offensive line to protect him. Learning new skills and gaining knowledge is an important part of the good life and to the extent that fantasy does this, it too is part of the good life.

Lastly, playing fantasy is fun! That’s no small thing. Enjoyment and pleasure are, as Aristotle argued in the 4th century BCE, important parts of a flourishing life. So, other things being equal, an activity like fantasy that is fun and provides satisfaction and joy is something that should be praised as a good thing. I’ll end with a quote from Ayn Rand on the goodness of joy:

“Joy is an end in itself. My pattern of enjoyment is: I’m good, and if this thing has given me enjoyment, then it is good.”[4]

Thank You.

[1] Chad Carlson (2013): “The Reality of Fantasy Sports: A Metaphysical and Ethical Analysis,” Journal of the Philosophy of Sport

[2] Billings and Ruihley (2014) The Fantasy Sport Industry, p 108. [My review of this book]

[3] Matthew Berry. (2013). Fantasy Life: The Outrageous, Uplifting, and Heartbreaking World of Fantasy Sports from the Guy Who’s Lived It. [My review of this book]

[4] Ayn Rand. (1999). The Journals of Ayn Rand. P. 604.

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2015 Sports Law and Ethics Symposium

On Thursday, September 10th, I will be attending Santa Clara University’s Institute of Sports Law & Ethics 2015 Sports Law and Ethics Symposium. I am part of a panel on Fantasy Sports. I will be speaking about ethics and fantasy sports, namely looking at some ethical concerns raised by fantasy sports as well as some positives.

The whole day-long conference looks to be very interesting featuring academics, lawyers, and professionals on major topics in sports law and ethics. The schedule is posted at the ISLE website.

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Review: The Fantasy Sport Industry

I recently reviewed The Fantasy Sport Industry: Games within Games (Routledge Research in Sport, Culture and Society) by Andrew C. Billings and Brody J. Ruihley for the Nordic Sport Science Forum.

The central idea of Andrew Billings and Brody Ruihley’s book, The Fantasy Sport Industry¸ is that fantasy is a game-changer. It is a game-changer in the way sport is covered by and represented in the media. It is a game-changer for the fans and how they consume sport. Indeed, it is potentially a game-changer for the very sports on which these games are based.

Fantasy Sports have been around for several decades. They started small, the domain of, so the stereotype goes, geeky guys in their basements. But these games have expanded exponentially in the last twenty years. Something like thirty five million North Americans play fantasy sport in some manner: that’s more than the numbers of people who play golf, watch the American Idol finale, or own iPhones (Berry, 2; Billings and Ruihley, 5). Fantasy is now a regular and frequent feature of the broadcasts and news reports of sporting events. Networks such as ESPN have dedicated programs for fantasy. There is even a TV sit-com centered on the members of fantasy football league called, appropriately enough, The League (of which this reviewer confesses he is a big fan). Much of all this revolves around Fantasy Football, but there are fantasy leagues for all the major professional sports (indeed there are fantasy leagues for non-sporting activities as well: Fantasy Congress and Celebrity Fantasy to name two).

Given all this interest, it is no surprise that fantasy has become big business with billions of dollars in revenue. Billings and Ruihley set out to provide a much needed look at this growing industry. The first chapter provides the overall context. The authors discuss the philosophical question of just what makes something a fantasy sport and breaks down the basics of how fantasy games are played. They demonstrate the popularity and growth of fantasy and through this ask the main question of the book. Why do people play fantasy? This raises the important follow-up question: what effect does fantasy have on all the ways we normally consume and understand sport?

You can read the rest of the review:

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Guest Post: Fantasy Football, Metaphysics, and Value

The author of this guest post is Chad Carlson. Dr. Carlson is an Assistant Professor of Kinesiology at Hope College (MI). He has published numerous articles on the philosophy and history of sport.

In a recent article in the Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, I argued that Fantasy Football is a parasitic game. In other words, it is a game that derives its existence and value from the actual sport of American football (not to be confused with what the rest of the world calls football). Fantasy Football, therefore, is a second order game. Its unique and unprecedented popularity has in many ways paralleled that of actual football. In fact, without actual football, the fantasy counterpart would fail to exist.

Despite its genetic determination from actual football, Fantasy Football also shares some characteristics with other games. Like “cybersport,” Fantasy Football is governed in cyberspace. However, in “cybersport,” the “athlete” has complete agency over the movements and operations of the game whereas in Fantasy Football, the owner does not.

Like simple sport spectatorship, Fantasy Football shares in that a lot of the fun and enjoyment of the game comes from actually watching the NFL games play out and cheering one way or another. However, whereas Fantasy Football owners have the ability to set their lineups and activate or deactivate their players, fans watching actual football games have no real (legal) ability to manipulate the events on the field to encourage their team to win—outside of cheering really loudly!

Fantasy Football may be most like card games such as poker. In these games, the player (owner) has some agency to make the most of his/her hand (team). However the difference here is in the time at which the player has agency. In poker, the player is dealt a hand theoretically at random. The player has no control over the cards dealt. From there, the card shark is able to make the most of his/her hand. Fantasy Football is the opposite. The owner has the ability to set his/her lineup by inserting, benching, trading, waiving, and picking up players who are in the best position to obtain fantasy points in each week’s games. Yet that’s where the owner’s agency ends. Once the games begin, the owner is at the mercy of “the Fantasy Gods.”

I stand by all of these metaphysical arguments. For as popular as Fantasy Football has become (it has become exceedingly difficult to delineate between the NFL and Fantasy Football—just watch the ticker below an NFL broadcast), it is still a second order game whose value owes its entire existence to actual football. It is no coincidence, then, that Fantasy Football’s popularity has risen alongside the unprecedented increases in popularity of the NFL.

As such, I argued that we should be wary of Fantasy Football’s value. As a second order game it naturally has a second-class status; and as a parasitic game, it has warped our understanding of football.

I argued that although Fantasy Football has played a large role in the continually growing interest in NFL football, the way in which Fantasy Football has promoted this growing interest might not be healthy. Fantasy Football promotes only certain aspects of football—the accrual of individualized statistics by quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, and kickers—to the neglect of other important roles and aspects of the game. Further, the goals of Fantasy Football pervert our viewership of NFL games. Watching NFL games to follow my fantasy team has rid me of any purist viewership of football, and it has turned me into a disloyal and contextual partisan. I cheer not for teams, but for the individual players I drafted from a variety of NFL teams to compose my fantasy roster. Further, I cheer for particular events to occur within NFL games that create situations in which my players can accrue statistics and therefore obtain fantasy points. Thus, I might cheer for a particular team to be stopped for little to no gain on first and second downs in the red zone so that the quarterback might target my tight end or wide receiver in the end zone on third down. Or I might cheer when my running back breaks tackles for a big gain but then find disgust when the exact same team has another long gain the next play if it is a result of a carry by another of that team’s running backs. This type of spectatorship can easily create unhealthy attitudes towards football as an individual rather than team sport. And this attitude goes against the maxims of every football coach in the country who preaches that the strength of football is in the team.

I have been reminded of all of this most recently throughout the first two weeks of the Fantasy Football, er, NFL, season. I am watching the games very closely and I remember which teams win, but my mood changes based not on which teams win but based on whether my fantasy players have done well or not. As such, I am reminded of how Fantasy Football has the ability to alter how we watch and understand the NFL.

However, I have also been reminded of how Fantasy Football can be a very fun and playful way of coming to understand and enjoy professional football. This August, my family decided to start a Fantasy Football league. Most of our league’s members were new to Fantasy Football, and a few in-laws were relatively new American football.

After explanations from us “experts” about such elementary fantasy issues as why one should not draft a team defense in the first round and what a “flex” position entails, and after the resulting snickers from the foreign in-laws about the term “tight end,” we held a draft and are well on our way to conducting a successful Fantasy Football league.

I have been amazed at how well some of the non-football fans in our league have come to understand the pigskin game just by reading and listening to expert advice on Fantasy Football. Media analysis of Fantasy Football has become so complex and detailed that it is difficult to argue that interest in Fantasy ownership necessarily encourages fantasy owners to neglect certain crucial aspects of actual football in attempts to win Fantasy Football games. Much of the production of the playmakers that top the Fantasy Football stat charts comes from healthy and serviceable offensive lines, advantageous defensive matchups, and the wily game plans of offensive coordinators. Understanding these complexities requires more than just a surface-level knowledge of football.

Fantasy Football has also become a way for my family to bond. While we’ve never failed to find activities around which we’ve enjoyed each other’s company, we can now add Fantasy Football to our list. The last few Sundays have been filled with “trash-texting” and needling emails, and I am reminded of how much fun Fantasy Football can be for a family that has great interest in competitive sports but no real long-standing connections to any particular NFL team.

Therefore, I feel the need to temper my thoughts on Fantasy Football’s lack of value. Kept in context, the game can serve as a fun diversion—among many others in this world.

But Fantasy Football is healthiest when kept in metaphysical context. As I write this, I sit at 0-2. My first round loss was to my brother. While he convinced us that he didn’t put much time or effort into his team, I at least took solace in the fact that he knows football and Fantasy Football relatively well. However, my Week 2 loss to my, gulp, mom, has me reaching deep into the ontological stronghold of my memory to keep focus on the fact that Fantasy Football is a game involving a great deal of luck just like poker. My mom is a great athlete, but she doesn’t know football (in fact, she didn’t know what the “Bye” column next to her roster of players meant until after Week 1). This led me to believe that my matchup with her would be as easy as taking candy from a baby.

In actual sports, each player’s agency is far greater. When I’m losing a sporting contest I can try harder or play smarter and often have my efforts rewarded on the scoreboard. If I found myself running neck and neck in a footrace with my mother I could, theoretically, try harder and end up winning as a result.

Fantasy Football is different. It is not a sport. More effort, better skill, or a deeper knowledge of the game will not necessarily result in a better performance. While I see that from one perspective as I lose to my mom, I see it from another angle regarding my dad. Dad came to our draft with a 3” three-ring binder full of draft analysis, printed tips, and notes to himself that he referenced while using all of the 90 seconds allotted to him for each pick he made. He spends a great deal of time studying expert analysis, offering trade options, and hovering over the waiver wires. And as the only former football player in our league, he has the highest expectations for the season.

But as of Monday night, he also sits at 0-2 in our league. The former quarterback (Dad) and the philosopher (that’s, um, me) have nothing to show for their relevant areas of expertise. And this reminds me that Fantasy Football is not an actual sport. It is a game that requires more luck than skill. So my response to the “trash-texts” I’ve received from my mom since my loss to her is: “You’re not better than me. The Fantasy Football gods simply found more favor with you than me.”

Does my loss make me a lesser athlete? Of course not! But does my response to the loss make me a bad sport? Well…


Filed under Fandom, Fantasy, games

Are Fantasy Sports Irresponsible?

Fantasy Football season is just starting to spin up and millions of football fans are beginning to think about their top draft prospects or clever names for their teams. As big as it is, it is not surprising that it has started to get more and more scholarly attention. Chad Carlson and I discussed philosophical questions arising in fantasy in a podcast back in December (Mike and I also talked fantasy last August).

Scott Aikin joins the fray with his relatively recent article in the International Journal of Applied Philosophy entitled “Responsible Sports Spectatorship and the Problem of Fantasy Leagues”. Aikin says Fantasy Sports can bring about “a unique form of distortion of proper spectator performance” (195). In sum, his argument is that those who watch sporting events for the purpose of participating in a fantasy league are failing to be what he calls “responsible spectators”.

Using several different kinds of cases where a spectator intuitively appears to fall short of spectator norms, Aikin presents a “norm of responsible spectatorship” (199):

Responsible spectators (a) strive to make sense of the individual games they watch in terms of the objectives of the game, (b) pull for properly sporting actions in the game, and (c) pursue these ends in ways that appropriately fit with their wider ethical obligations (199-200).

Fantasy players fail, according to Aikin, to satisfy these norms.  They fail on (a) and (b) because they don’t watch a game as an integrated whole. They watch and root for specific actions by specific players irrespective of the consequence of those actions on the actual game played. For example, rooting for a team to go for a touchdown in a situation where the game-situation calls for running down the clock and kicking a game-clinching field goal (a ‘b’ failure). Moreover, fantasy players fail to see the game as a whole: it’s not Patriots vs. Jets; it’s whether Brady throws enough TDs (an ‘a’ failure).

Aikin also argues that fantasy players fail on (c) because of they are concerned only with “the greedy self-gratification of collecting further points for a team consisting of bytes and bits in cyberspace” (201-2).  All these failures, argues Aikin, show us that fantasy players fail to make sense of the game as the game it is; there is a “failure to properly attend to games” (202).

There are a number of issues I have with Aikin’s paper and I won’t tackle them all here. The primary one is that I don’t think he takes seriously enough just what fantasy sports are; or rather, what it is that fantasy players are doing when they watch the sporting events upon which the fantasy games is based.

Aikin’s claim is that fantasy players are improper spectators of the sport. They should be watching the game as it is but instead are watching particular players or actions in various games. Moreover, they ought to be concerned with the narrative or structure of the game they are watching but fantasy players are not primarily concerned about the particular game and its unfolding action. They are concerned with a range of actions across many games.

In this description, Aikin is correct: fantasy player qua fantasy player is not watching the sport event qua sporting event. But this fact doesn’t establish that the fantasy player is doing something irresponsible or improper.

On one hand, Aikin’s argument amounts to a trivial claim: People watching fantasy sports are not watching a sporting event as a sporting event. But that’s just saying that A and non-A are not identical.  On the other hand, he seems to be saying something much more substantial: Watching sporting events in a way that is not watching it as a sporting event is wrong (or improper or irresponsible). But this seems clearly wrong without a substantial argument to support it and Aikin’s argument doesn’t get the job done.

He has to show that (1) his vision of proper spectatorship is superior to others and (2) that these norms of spectatorship apply to the fantasy player. I think Aikin falls short on both accounts (but I’m only going to deal with (2) in this post).

He attempts to address (2) within his Fourth Objection. This is the “just another game objection” (204).  The objection says that fantasy players are not sport spectators; they are watching a different game altogether. That is, in watching the Bears take on the Rams, the fantasy player isn’t watching a football match qua football match. He is watching the game to see how it impacts his fantasy team as well learn about other the athletes for future moves and fantasy games. So the fact that he doesn’t fit the norms of the responsible spectatorship is not a problem because these norms don’t actually apply to him in this context.

Aikin’s response is that the fantasy player is nonetheless watching the game. He is not merely checking the stats; he is watching the game and so ought to abide by the appropriate norms of watching.  But this is to miss the objection almost in its entirety.

Fantasy sports, as Chad Carlson articulates, are second-order games. There are games built of off other games in which others are directly engaged. They are also not reducible to these first-order games: they are different games with different rules and ends.

In playing the second-order game, one is attending to and concerned with the actions at the first-level. But the context and intent of their attention and concern is different. The watching of the sport is not watching the sport qua sport. It is watching the sport qua playing the second-order game. The requisite norms that apply have to do with playing the second-order game. The fact that one may not thereby be complying with the norms of watching the first-order game is not then baldly a deficiency.

It can be a deficiency if one intends to be watching the first-order game qua game but then doesn’t live up to those relevant norms. This is a deficiency of hypocrisy. But that’s not the issue that Aikin is taking up.

It can also be deficient if the first-order game has a privileged status. This seems to be what Aikin believes, but it is never argued for. The privileged status is not automatic merely because it is first-order.

For the sake of argument (but only for the sake of argument), I’ll concede that fantasy players are deficiently watching the games from Aikin’s standard of responsible spectatorship. However, if they are doing something else by their watching then it is not obvious or necessary that this standard applies.

An appreciator of great art walks through the Louvre. She stops at the classic paintings that exemplify the standards and purposes of great art. She attends to them as she learned to do as an Art History major. She is, let’s say, a responsible appreciator of paintings.

Another patron is walking through the Louvre. He stops at paintings with no discernable pattern from the perspective of the standards of great works. He doesn’t pay attention to some paintings that from the norms of a responsible appreciator of paintings he ought. After each viewing, he checks a few things off on his computer tablet and moves on. He seems deficient in his art appreciation. And maybe if his intent was to appreciate the paintings as the previous patron, he would be. But he is actually engaged in an online game with patrons at art museums all over the world.  He is checking off that, for example, he found a painting of a farmhouse or one that doesn’t include the color red. He is attending to very different kinds of things about the paintings than the Art Historian because his goals are different. It is unreasonable to hold him to the Art Historian standard of appreciation. It’s just not what he is engaged in even if it looks similar.

He is engaged in a second-order game. It is built off of the first-order activity of art appreciation, but it is not the same thing. Like many second-order games, it can run counter to the goals and aims of art appreciation (e.g. the painting of the farmhouse that the game players are hunting down might barely be museum-worthy) and so the norms for each activity will be different (though not necessarily at odds or mutually exclusive).

The point is that insofar as the art scavenger hunt game-player is trying to appreciate art, he may be falling short. But since that is not what he is doing, then it is a mistake to apply that standard to him.

The same goes for the fantasy sport player. He might be in various ways failing short of the standards of spectatorship as Aikin presents it, but since that’s not the activity he is primarily engaged in, we shouldn’t be holding him to that standard.

That said, there is nothing inherently incompatible here. The art scavenger hunt game-player can at the same time conform to the art appreciation standards as he plays his game. And maybe he can learn more about these standards and art itself by playing the scavenger game.

Similarly, the fantasy player can uphold the standards of good spectatorship while also engaging in fantasy. I don’t take these as mutually exclusive activities and, though they can at times be at odds, they are more often, I think, reinforcing of each other. (One learns more about the athletes, the game, its intricacies and strategies, etc. and through this can appreciate the first-order game more. Much like the art scavenger hunt is probably a great way to learn about art.)

So while there is a bit of a concession here (the fantasy player is not watching sport as one ought to be watching sport qua watching sport); this concession doesn’t undermine the counter to Aikin’s argument against fantasy. The fantasy player is not being an irresponsible spectator nor is he failing short of an obligation of spectatorship. He is not, when he is playing fantasy, being a spectator and so the norms just don’t apply.

This leaves open an important question, one that is probably more philosophically important. Does Aikin get the norms of spectatorship correct? That’ll have to be a discussion for a future post.


Filed under Fantasy

The Sports Ethicist Show: The Reality of Fantasy Sports

The Sports Ethicist Show airs Monday at 6 pm CDT on Rockford College Radio.

It’s fantasy football playoff time! Chad Carlson, professor at Eastern Illinois University, talks with Shawn Klein about some of the ethical and philosophical issues in fantasy sports. We discuss his recent article in the Journal of the Philosophy of Sport: “The Reality of Fantasy Sports: A Metaphysical and Ethical Analysis”

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Filed under Fantasy, Football, NFL, podcast, RadioShow