Sunday, September 27, 2009

Too Rich For My Blood: DeAngelo Williams, Cash, and the Ethics of Fantasy Football

[Editor's Note: New columnist Peter Durant takes a look at the ethical implications of being an owner in fantasy football.]

I fell in love with DeAngelo Williams last year. He had just finished making the defense look like a house of cards for “The Adam Jones Experiment”, my opponent in the semi-finals of the NDFL (that’s the Newfoundland Dynasty Football League). I won that match in the end, but DeAngelo caused quite a stir, there was some tension on my couch.

It was towards the end of an incredible six week stretch where new DeAngelo outperformed old DeAngelo – kind of like the anti Seth Rogen. Trading for DeAngelo then became my number one off-season priority. The only issue being that there was only one year remaining on his fantasy contract and the asking price was a first round pick in 2009 and another in 2010. In the words of Poker Billy, “Too rich for my blood.” So what did I do to achieve my number one off-season goal? I offered one first round pick and real money – cold hard cash. Not a lot of dough in absolute terms, but I offered 1/5 of the pool entry fee, so relatively speaking, a considerable amount.

My proposal was considered and rejected on its terms, but here is the issue: What are my ethical obligations in fantasy world? I felt like I was doing something wrong and you could tell this is what I was thinking as I looked over my shoulder for other NDFL owners within earshot before tabling the offer at a pub over a few sips of lager.

Fantasy sports are inherently fantasy. We make believe. We act like real general managers. We talk like real owners. But we are not.

Ethical decisions are grounded in morality. But are fantasy sports real and do real morals apply? The answer has to be yes – afterall, the money is not fake. Fantasy sports are games but the stakes are real. We have to make decisions considering right and wrong even though the only outcomes are win or lose.

With pools being labeled fantasy, there is a natural tendency to approach decision making as though it is without consequence. Presumably, pools are played with friends (at least acquaintances). These are people for whom we normally make decisions ethically. In the real world, presumably, we do not make a decision to immorally move money from our friend’s pocket into our own.

Some of the pitfalls are unavoidable; there will never be an even playing field and somebody has to win, much like real sports and that is how it should be. There will always be uncontrollable factors like injuries versus controllable factors like informational asymmetry.

So, while it is fantasy, when you break it down, it is not fantasy. We are simply using real performance statistics as a medium to gamble. It is gambling with your friends. We are trying to take our friends money and people can easily lose sight of that. It is fair game as we all know the stakes and the boundaries of the ‘competition’.

I spoke to our league commissioner about the real money offer for DeAngelo, (after reminding me that it was him to whom I made the offer), we discussed it at length. We talked about how to categorize this type of trade. We called it ‘under the table’, ‘off the book’, ‘tangible’, and ultimately, agreed, it is wrong, no matter what we call it.

My offer of real money was outside the margins of what it takes to move players in our league, but, I didn’t see it that way until I made that offer and thought about it. It was not an ethical offer made by me. I was attempting to alter the playing field in my favour without notice to the other owners. Essentially, I was using coercion in the form of real money to alter the fantasy market value of DeAngelo Williams.

In the end, DeAngelo was traded to one of our expansion teams for two first round picks. The trade itself made no sense but it was certainly above board. I still think I have a shot at DeAngelo at our trading deadline when the expansion team is dumping expiring contracts for picks as his playoff chances fade. This time around, my offer will not include cash, maybe a gift certificate instead. Or not.

As long as there is real money, fantasy is real. Real world ethics apply to fantasy world sports.

- Peter Durant

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