Fantasy Sports, Respect for the Game, and the Real Value of Fake Teams
As I suspect is true of most Pitcher List readers, I play fantasy baseball. (I play a lot of fantasy baseball. Too much fantasy baseball, by any reasonable standard.) As I suspect is likewise true of most Pitcher List readers, I also consider myself a fan, not only of a particular baseball team, but of the game itself—I hold the sport in high esteem; I celebrate its history and appreciate its evolution; and I watch the GIFs and marvel at the skill they evidence. In fact, I’d say that I’m a baseball fan first and foremost and, only secondarily, an Orioles fan (this is an easy thing to say when you’re an Orioles fan). Regardless of whether your appreciation of the sport takes priority over your loyalty to a particular team or vice versa, I suspect that you too consider yourself a baseball fan as well as a fantasy player. I say “consider” because it turns out there is reason to doubt that we can, in fact, be both of these things.
That reason comes from philosopher and killjoy Scott Aikin (that’s him up there, judging us), who has argued that most fantasy players—be it in baseball, football, or Super Rugby—lack respect for the corresponding sport. Put briefly, his argument is that if you respect a sport, then your primary desire in watching that sport will be to see it played well. You won’t root for blowouts, officiating mistakes, poor play, stupid decisions, or anything else that makes for a bad game. Instead, you’ll pull for close, fair, games in which both teams play their best. But most fantasy players do root for things that make for bad games—they’re only too happy to see blowouts, poor play, etc. if those things help their fantasy team. And so most fantasy players are “irresponsible spectators” according to Aikin. Their engagement with the sport is not respectful or reverential, but “entirely self-indulgent and narcissistic.”
Now, I prefer not to think of myself as an irresponsible narcissist. I assume the same is true of you. So I’d like to be able to show that Aikin is wrong. There are three general ways in which that could be done.
Response 1: “But I do respect the game.”
First, we could try to show that he’s wrong about the rooting interests of fantasy players. If, when a fantasy baseball player watches a game, her strongest desire is to see a good ballgame, then Aikin can’t charge her with irresponsible spectatorship or narcissistic self-indulgence. Maybe some of you are in this sense baseball fans first and fantasy players second. If so, you’re golden—go ahead and add “Responsible Baseball Spectator” to your Twitter profile. But I admit that’s not how I usually watch games. To the contrary, I’m delighted to see poor plate discipline on the part of batters if it helps my pitchers and to see opposing pitchers and fielders struggle if it means that my hitters can rack up counting stats.
I really need Kershaw to get destroyed tonight.
Is there some kind of a ritualistic sacrifice or dance one can do to make that happen?
I love the guy – possibly my favourite pitcher to watch since Pedro – but just this once?
— Rob Silver (@RobSilver) September 25, 2018
While I haven’t myself resorted to pagan rituals, I will join Rob Silver in actively rooting against key members of my opponents’ fantasy teams. I welcome blowouts if they enable my pitchers to go deeper in games or my batters to hit against mop-up pitchers or, better yet, a position player. You won’t hear me complain if my pitcher collects strikeouts as a result of an umpire’s overlarge or inconsistent strike zone, or even if a bad call gives my batter a home run he didn’t deserve. I recognize that it’s bad baseball for managers to reserve their best reliever for a save situation, but desperately want the managers of my closers to do just that. If you can relate to any of these desires—if you at least sometimes prioritize the success of your fantasy teams over the quality of the game you’re watching—then this first way of countering Aikin’s argument won’t work for you any more than it will for me.
Response 2: “Respect? What do you know about respect?”
The second option would be to dispute Aikin’s notion of respect for the game. If we could offer some other, better definition of “respect for the game” which is compatible with rooting for poor play, blowouts, etc. when they help your fantasy team, then we can be both respectful spectators and self-interested fantasy players at the same time. I’d really like to be those things, and so I’d be eager to hear proposals along these lines if you’ve got ‘em. But I’m not sure this line of response will work, either, because the reasoning behind Aikin’s interpretation of “respect for the game” seems to me sound. As he says, if you truly respect a sport, you’ll see it as intrinsically valuable, “as something worth playing and watching for its own sake, not for the winning, the money to be had, the bragging rights, or self-aggrandizement.” If you see a sport as intrinsically valuable in this way, you’ll desire what is good for it, you won’t want to see it ruined even if that would benefit you. And it’s hard to argue that poor play, blowouts, and officiating mistakes of the sort that most fantasy players root for don’t ruin a baseball game to at least some extent. But I’d love to be convinced that I’m wrong about that.
Response 3: Human Flourishing > Respect for the Game
The third and final way to counter Aikin’s argument would be to acknowledge that fantasy players don’t respect the game (at least, not always/often), but argue that their failure to do so is justified. The idea here is that maybe we don’t put the good of the game above the good of our fantasy team, but if we have good reasons for failing to respect the game in this way, then our behavior is not irresponsible or narcissistic, but ethically justified. Consider what seems to be an analogous case. If the owner of a painting respects it as a piece of art, she’ll see it not simply as an investment, but as intrinsically valuable. She’ll thus want what is good for the painting (whatever that is—proper humidity? Protection from sunlight?). She won’t want the painting to be ruined, even if that would benefit her.
Suppose that someone who gets a kick out of defacing art offers double what the painting is worth to draw a silly face on it. If the owner views the painting simply as an investment, she’ll put what is good for her above what is good for the painting and thus gladly accept that offer. If she respects the painting as a piece of art, she’ll be reluctant to do so. However, if the owner plans to use the money to achieve something of moral importance—she needs it to pay for a life-saving operation for her child, say, or intends to donate it to a charity addressing some humanitarian crisis—then we would say that her failure to respect the painting was ethically justified. These things carry more ethical weight than honoring a painting. Now, what most of us achieve by playing fantasy baseball obviously isn’t nearly so important as a life-saving operation, but I do believe we achieve something of ethical significance. Here’s my argument …
Aikin acknowledges that the duty to respect the game is weak such that it can be overridden by other, stronger ethical considerations. This is surely correct. If you were to list the various ethical obligations we have in order of priority, you’d have to scroll down for quite a while before you get to “respect the game of baseball.” And so if something of greater ethical importance prevents you from respecting the game, you’d be justified in failing to do so. But Aikin assumes that fantasy players don’t achieve anything of ethical significance. More precisely, he assumes both:
- that the only ethical considerations capable of overriding the duty to respect the game are considerations having to do with other people, such as meeting the needs and flourishing of others or performing some of “other-interested role” like “parent” or “spouse”, and
- that fantasy players are not motivated by such other-directed ethical considerations.
So, if the reason you prioritize the success of your fantasy team over the quality of the game you’re watching is to help other people, then you might be justified; but you are not justified if your reasons have to do only with yourself—that’s assumption A. And assumption B is that fantasy players are always motivated by self-interest, never by a desire to help others. Both of these assumptions are false.
B is false because fantasy players aren’t always acting out of self-interest; they can be motivated by other-directed considerations. For instance, some professional fantasy players presumably use their winnings to support their family. So they root for Clayton Kershaw to do poorly or their Houston Astros stack to run up the score because that will help them to meet their family’s needs by paying for food, rent, etc. Just like the person who lets a painting be defaced in order to pay for their child’s operation, this is clearly justified.
And it is not uncommon for individuals to join fantasy leagues as a way of playing some “other-interested role,” to use Aikin’s term. It is part of the roles of “friend,” “parent,” and “spouse” to share interests and time with the relevant others, and many people take up fantasy sports as a way of doing just that—as a way of spending time with their child, or keeping their marriage “really hot,” apparently.
So, some fantasy players are motivated by ethical reasons having to do with other people. But that probably justifies only a small minority of fantasy baseball players – and it doesn’t justify me, which is what this is really all about—so we need to keep going …
Assumption A is false because it is not only the needs and flourishing of others which can take priority over the duty to respect the game. So, too, can one’s own needs and flourishing. After all, we aren’t ethically obligated to always focus on other people; in some cases and to some extent we’re justified in taking care of and improving ourselves (or also, you know, having fun). If a professional fantasy player has no family to support, but roots for play that benefits his fantasy team because it helps him to meet his own needs by enabling him to pay for food, rent, etc., then his failure to respect the game is every bit as justified as that of the fantasy pro who does have a family. And although they may not put it in these terms themselves, I claim that many fantasy players participate as a way of developing and displaying aspects of their own flourishing.
Here we need a bit of philosophical background. The concept of human flourishing comes from virtue ethics, the ethical theory of Plato and Aristotle. (Now that I’ve uploaded pictures of Plato and Aristotle to the PL media library, I really hope another author works them into a post.) In a nutshell, virtue ethics says that our fundamental ethical duty is to develop and exercise virtues, which are traits that help to make us a good example of a human being. There are (at least) three kinds of virtues: intellectual, emotional, and physical. Humans are rational beings, so part of what it is to be a good human being is to have and use well-developed intellectual traits, like open-mindedness and critical thought. A good human being will also have certain emotional virtues, like courage and self-control. We are also physical beings, so part of our good consists of physical virtues, like health, strength, and endurance.
On the standard account of why sports are valuable, the main answer given is that they create opportunities for participants to develop and display all three of these kinds of virtues. Sports set out a goal, like getting a ball in a hoop, and the rules create obstacles which make achievement of that goal more difficult—things like “the hoop is 10 feet above the ground” and “you can’t just carry the ball to the hoop; you have to bounce it on the ground.” In order to overcome those obstacles, you will need to have and use certain virtues, like creativity, agility, and cooperation in basketball. The goal a sport lays out is often trivial—taken in themselves, there’s no value in getting a ball in a hoop, across an arbitrary line, or hitting it over a fence with a piece of wood. The value of a sport lies in the human capacities and character traits that athletes display in trying to achieve such goals.
Fantasy sports are of course not real sports, but they are games. And I think that, like real sports, fantasy sports are valuable in part because they offer an arena in which participants can develop and display intellectual and emotional (but thankfully not physical) virtues. The goal of fantasy baseball is roughly to compile the statistics for which points are awarded. But the rules create obstacles which make that more difficult. We can’t just pick any players we think will get the most stats. Instead, we have to compete for athletes with other fantasy participants in the draft or on waivers, we have to make sure those athletes make up full “lineup,” or—worse yet—roster two catchers, and so on. In order to achieve the goal despite these obstacles, you’ll need some luck, but you’ll also and more fundamentally need to have and use certain intellectual and emotional virtues, such as …
- open-mindedness, creativity, and intellectual courage by developing and deploying a novel strategy;
- perspicacity and sound judgment by accurately and insightfully assessing the reasons to draft or start one athlete rather than another;
- determination by putting in the time to research players and matchups each and every day or week of what is a very long season;
- intellectual honesty by objectively evaluating your own performance and that of your chosen athletes;
- patience by not giving up on a player or strategy too quickly;
- intellectual humility and flexibility by not sticking with a player or strategy too long, but instead acknowledging when a change is called for.
These traits are all part of human flourishing, parts of what it is to be a good human. And so to root for play that benefits one’s fantasy team rather than that which makes for a good game is not to engage in “the greedy self-gratification of collecting further points for a team consisting of bytes and bits in cyberspace,” as Aikin uncharitably puts it. A rooting interest of this sort is better understood as a desire for evidence that decisions which employed various of one’s emotional and intellectual traits were well-made—that your new strategy was well-constructed and executed, that you made good choices in who to draft and start, etc. It is thus a desire for evidence of one’s own flourishing, evidence that we are being, or at least in some small way becoming, the “best we can be.”
That flourishing represents another ethical consideration that can override the duty to respect the game. And so just as anyone who plays fantasy sports to support their family, to support themselves, or to share time and interests with a friend has a legitimate ethical reason to put the good of their fantasy team above the quality of the games they watch, so too does anyone who plays fantasy sports for the challenge they present. In managing our fake teams so as to overcome those challenges, we can achieve real ethical values. This serves to justify our participation in fantasy baseball,* and so we can all keep rooting for our fantasy players in good conscience.
* This doesn’t justify all fantasy baseball players. Some players presumably are just in it for ethically insignificant things like bragging rights and self-aggrandizement. And even those who do play for the challenge and thus have a genuine ethical reason to do so might in a given case have even more reason not to play—this might be true if they should be spending that time with their family, or if the competition brings out the worst in them. But it does justify my behavior, and, again, that’s what this is really all about.
Main Graphic by Nathan Mills (@NathanMillsPL on Twitter)