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Since ESPN offered the first internet-based fantasy baseball in 1995, Fantasy Sports—and, especially, Fantasy Football—have become ubiquitous. Advertisements encourage viewers to log on now to win hundreds of thousands of dollars playing. In 2016, it was estimated almost 60 million people played fantasy sports in the U.S. and Canada, with the industry bringing in $7.2 billion. As with all things ubiquitous, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on the effects—both positive and negative—this all has on the fans who participate. 

There’s a subtle absurdity to sports that the Fantasy realm overcomes. In Jerry Seinfeld’s stand-up routine, he wryly suggests sports fans are essentially just rooting for their favorite clothes: with athletes constantly traded, managers fired, and personnel changing drastically over the course of a fan’s tenure, the clothes are really all that remains. He concludes, “Loyalty to any one sports team is pretty hard to justify.” Fantasy Sports has an answer to this: pick your favorite players and root for them, regardless of the team.

This relatively new frontier of sports consumption brings with it a novel sort of nuance, complication, and revelation about sports and our experience with it. I’ll say this out of the gates: I don’t play Fantasy Sports. Actually, my initial take viewed them as morally vacuous. But it’s nice to be surprised sometimes and recognize factors not initially visible given one’s own biases. 

In 2017 I spoke on a panel at Stanford University’s Sports Law and Policy Symposium. The panel included the Vice President of DraftKings, a leader in Fantasy Sports. In accepting the invitation, I’d planned to condemn Fantasy Sports from an ethical position. Though, as I shared with the DraftKings Vice President over dinner, after consideration the practice doesn’t seem unethical. In fact, if done well, it provides great benefits and, also, yet another interesting lens through which to view sports and a perspective I hadn’t previously considered.

Scoring points for fantasy sports

Fantasy Sports offer some uniquely prosocial benefits. In a way, I compare this institution with the baseball card collecting of my generation. Along with millions of other children, I collected cards of individual athletes. It allowed me to get to know them, to read a sentence or two on their personal history and view their statistics. This didn’t result in my being purely “stats” driven, nor did it prevent me from viewing athletes as full persons who were members of teams. If anything, it made them more of a person: born somewhere, traded here and there, and other tidbits I couldn’t cull during the pre-Internet era. 

Fantasy Sports seem to provide a similar vehicle for this generation. And as the American author of over 40 books, primarily fantasy novels, Lloyd Alexander, said, “Fantasy is hardly an escape from reality, it’s a way of understanding it.”

More so, Fantasy Sports are often much more communal than the solitary collecting of and reading baseball cards. From the friends of mine who play Fantasy Sports, they have their own friend group who meet occasionally, with food and revelry. It’s almost like a book club for those who don’t read books all that much: A community with which to share a common interest, camaraderie, and the enjoyment and tension of competition.

Lastly, just as sports provide a venue for losing yourself for a few hours amidst the doldrums of life, Fantasy Sports too provide this. Maybe even more so. Because regardless of how your team is doing, or how close the game of the day is, you’ve got players to follow whose every success and error leads to your own. So, jumping joyfully on the couch an extra 10 times or falling on that couch in despair from a dropped touchdown pass of one of your players are just more moments of what many sports fanatics love about sports, and rightly so.

What counts often can’t be counted

Sports aficionados (purportedly) value the team-oriented athlete as opposed to the athlete more closely aligned with the Me-First approach, aka The Ball Hog. But Fantasy Sports encourage us to focus on just the opposite. The athlete who seeks to pad his stats typically scores more fantasy points and thus maintains 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 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 to 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 typically scores no Fantasy Points for such efforts. Playing good defense is rarely celebrated and also difficult to quantify, but it sure makes the team perform better, which is what we really value in team sports.

The athlete is greater than the sum of their stats

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 basketball star Isaiah Thomas 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 primary criterion for deeming the unethical treatment of another.

But before we condemn the Fantasy Sports player, we should turn the lens toward 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. 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 2017 season and then, a month later, when he strained his groin. Like most fanatics, they speak in the first person, “That’s really going to hurt usWe 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, 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 is this: 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.

Covert addiction

A third potential concern of Fantasy Sports involves its likelihood to incite addiction and, worse, it 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 that brought this problem to light. It seems as though Fantasy Sports companies account for this—just look at the language of a DraftKings 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 psychological blind spots? 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 primary concerns here, three other, more ancillary issues arise: the role of chance and skill in Fantasy Sports; whether Fantasy Sports players should account for the off-field nefarious behavior of athletes; and the concern that it could encourage and facilitate cheating within the actual games. Real concerns, no doubt.

And buyer beware: an existential sports fan crisis looms for every Fantasy player. Inevitably, your favorite team will be in a tight game whose opponent has a key fantasy player. This could thrust you into a proverbial lose-lose situation: do you root against your player in whom you have a vested interest, or do you disavow your loyalty to your team, even if only for a moment?

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.

The author of 5 books, including Amazon Top-500, The Dream Weaver and, If You Can Read This, featured in the New York Times. Spoke at TEDxStanford in 2017 on the topic of awe. Graduated from Stanford...

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