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When Fantasy (Sports) Becomes Real (Life)

by Jack Bowen


In Jerry Seinfeld’s stand-up routine, he wryly suggests sports fans essentially root for their favorite jerseys—with athletes constantly traded, managers fired, and personnel changing drastically over the course of a fan’s tenure, the jersey is really all that remains. Fantasy sport has an answer: pick your favorite players and root for them, regardless of the team.

Fantasy Sports has spawned a new frontier of fandom. As with all things next-level, this introduces nuance, complication, and new revelations about sports and our experience with it.

I recently spoke on a panel at Stanford University’s “Sports Law and Policy Symposium.” The panel included three experts steeped in sports and gaming law as well as the Vice President of Draft Kings, a leader in Fantasy Sports. In accepting the invitation, I had initially planned on firmly condemning Fantasy Sports from an ethical position. Though, as I shared with the Draft Kings Vice President over dinner the night prior to the event, after consideration, I don’t consider the practice unethical per se but do have some concerns. Additionally, I see this as yet another great opportunity for reflection, including, primarily, three ethical considerations:

1. Fantasy Sports Rewards What We Don’t Value

We (purportedly) value the team-oriented athlete versus the athlete more closely aligned with Me-First than Team-First, aka The Ball Hog. But Fantasy Sports encourages us to focus on just the opposite. The athlete who seeks to pad his stats likely scores more fantasy-points and is thus of greater value to the Fantasy Sports player.

Here we can draw from Aristotle who based his ethical framework less on forming ethical rules and more on reflecting on the question, What kind of person do I want to be? In this case, we can ask, “What kind of fan do I want to be?” Because, if we become so caught up in Fantasy Sports that we aren’t conscious of what we’re celebrating, then we may become the sort of fan we really don’t aspire to be. One statistic I’d like to see included in Fantasy Sports—and which would mitigate the above concern—is the plus-minus statistic used primarily in ice hockey and, more recently, basketball.

This most closely aligns with the team-oriented player as it addresses the following metric: When a particular athlete is in the game, is the team scoring or being scored upon? It rewards the athlete willing do the small things on behalf of the team: hustle back on defense, for example, or drive through the opponent’s zone in order to break down the defense, thus opening up a passer (who gets an assist) and shooter (who scores points). Yet this player scores no Fantasy Points for such efforts. Playing good defense is rarely celebrated and difficult to quantify, but it sure makes the team perform better, which is what we really value in team sports.

2. Fantasy Sports Dehumanizes and Commodifies Athletes

When someone’s Fantasy Player is injured, it often engenders a response of the sort, “Oh great! Now he won’t score points for my Fantasy Team.” Likewise when an athlete suffers a personal loss, such as Isaiah Thomas recently losing his sister in a car accident (causing him to comment, understandably, “I wanted to give up and quit”), the Fantasy Player might be inclined to worry more about their own Fantasy scoring and not the devastation experienced by this particular human.

In short, these athletes become disposable, dehumanized, and we treat them merely as a means to our own ends: what German philosopher Immanuel Kant asserted as the criterion for deeming the unethical treatment of another.

But before we condemn the Fantasy Sports player, we should turn the lens towards all sports fans. A similar form of the above frustration also occurs with the real fan when a star player is injured or suffers a personal loss. Here in the Bay Area, I heard numerous San Francisco Giants fans lament shortstop Brandon Crawford’s missing games due to the death of his wife’s sister early in the season and then, a month later, when he strained his groin. Like most fanatics, they speak in the first person, “Oh great. That’s really going to hurt us. We are definitely going to struggle on the playing field now.”

Yet, the issue of the Fantasy Sports player is exacerbated because, in their case, they truly do lose something. While the Giants fan feels like he’s lost something yet hasn’t, the Fantasy Sports player does lose something: the fantasy points he would have scored which translates to dollars lost, thus making it all the more likely they treat these athletes merely as means to their own ends.

And yet again, in a final analysis, we must ask in what way any of us really “treat” these players in the first place. Neither the Fantasy nor real fan interacts with the athlete. We’re not “treating” these players like anything, much in the same way we don’t “treat” a dancer we watch on television for purely aesthetic reasons.

The real concern being, Fantasy Sports has the potential to create a moral habit in its participants in which they reflect on these people—the athletes—in a way antithetical to how we otherwise think best.

3. Covert Addiction

Another concern of Fantasy Sports is that it incites addiction and, worse, does so covertly as a wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing. A number of reports and studies mete this out, as does a now-famous Frontline segment, which brought this problem to light. And it seems as though Fantasy Sports companies account for this—just look at the language of a Draft Kings advertisement: “Pick your sport. Pick your players. And pick up your cash.”

There’s no doubt it requires some skill to play Fantasy Sports well (an important caveat) but many who are prone to the addictive nature of gambling participate in Fantasy Sports rationalizing it as being “just a game” or, “a way to connect with my love of sports.”

Additionally, advertisements of all ilk play on the emotions and brain chemistry of viewers and potential consumers. Much of this boils down to a question of paternalism: How much should we allow people to assert their own autonomy and how much should we protect people from their own (often hidden) shortcomings? Regardless, if this truly is gambling and thus potentially addictive, it raises an ethical flag as to how it should be promoted to the public.

The Endgame

Clearly much more looms beneath the surface of Fantasy Sports. In addition to the three aforementioned primary concerns, three other, more ancillary concerns arise: the role of chance and skill in Fantasy Sports; whether Fantasy Sports players should account for the off-field nefarious behavior of athletes they chose for their Fantasy teams; and the concern that this more easily facilitates cheating within the actual games. In addition, we must consider what affect Fantasy Sports has on the huge majority of athletes in the country most affected by it: youth athletes.

At the least, this relatively new institution of Fantasy Sports provides a great opportunity to reflect on our own lives, both in sports and out, and make a more informed decision in the case we chose to enter the fantasy realm. And sports fans both Fantasy and Real can join Aristotle, Kant and Seinfeld, take a step back, and reflect on just what sort of fan—and person—one wants to be in both Fantasy life and Real.

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Jack is the author of 4 books, including his latest (co-authored), Sport, Ethics, and Leadership (July, 2017).  His other books include San Francisco Chronicle bestseller and Amazon Top-500 selection, The Dream Weaver and, If You Can Read This, featured in the New York Times, USA Today, and NPR.  He spoke at TEDxStanford in 2017 on the topic of awe.  Jack graduated from Stanford University with Honors in Human Biology and earned his Masters Degree in philosophy, graduating summa cum laude.

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