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When Fantasy (Sports) Becomes Reality

By Jack Bowen

When Fantasy (Sports) Becomes Reality

jack-bowen  It all started with a seemingly benign question about Fantasy Football, of all things. A recent sports law & ethics symposium at Santa Clara University featured a four-member panel including two lawyers, the COO of a major fantasy league provider, and a philosopher, Shawn Klein. Klein was the last to deliver his official “Statement” to the crowd. In it, he highlighted various compelling nuances as we would expect from a philosopher. He defended Fantasy Football in light of criticism from other scholars that Fantasy Sports are “parasitic,” remove the team narrative from the sport, and exist more as a form of gambling than a game.

The poignant question Klein posed had to do with the various NFL players involved in recent controversies, including domestic violence, child abuse, abusing animals and deflating footballs: “How much does drafting and starting a [Fantasy Football] player constitute sanctioning or condoning the athlete’s behavior?” He then left the question hanging, in true philosopher fashion, “I don’t have a clear idea of what the right answers are.”

This past summer, I wrote about how we ought to handle the alleged actions of USA goalie Hope Solo and whether we can rightly support her qua soccer goalie, and even if we could rightly support the team for playing her. I concluded that my sitting with my friends and clapping for her avoided any moral shortcomings, despite many arguments to the contrary.

But this particular discussion took the issue to a more personal level. In Klein’s introduction he claimed that, as an ethicist, he would attempt to answer the question, “What does understanding the nature of fantasy sport tell us about how to act regarding fantasy sports?” Much to my chagrin, we answered this, but also so much more—not just how to act regarding fantasy sports but regarding our own relationships and each other.

Sandwiched between this panel and our discussion were various other insightful speakers, all taking a chance to weigh in on this topic. New York Times sports columnist, Bill Rhoden, asked rhetorically how Klein could still be a fan of the morally questionable New England Patriots, adding that the Dallas Cowboys’ Greg Hardy should not be allowed on anyone’s Fantasy Team given his alleged domestic violence. Rhoden then claimed that our current view of such athletes has rendered us, “Morally and ethically tone deaf.” Though, in response, the fantasy league COO retorted, “If you have the opportunity to draft someone like Tom Brady on your Fantasy Football team and you chose not to do so for moral reasons, then you’re just not a good Fantasy Football player.”

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Before getting to the crux of Klein’s question—and the big-picture insight garnered from it—it’s worth looking more deeply into the actual answer.

One issue I’ve found morally interesting is the notion that Fantasy Football almost dehumanizes the actual players. In short, it treats them merely as a means to our ends. For example, if an athlete on one’s Fantasy Football team gets injured, they are likely to think of this in their terms—I lost a point-scorer on my team—and not in terms of the injured athlete. Additionally, if an athlete suffers a loss in his personal life—the death of a close relative, for example—Fantasy Football participants often express concern not for the grieving athlete but, instead, for what it might do to that athlete’s performance relevant to the particular Fantasy Football points he might forgo.

Various factors tie into such a discussion. As one of my friends, Tracy, noted, drafting of particular players does, in some sense, validate them. Most Fantasy Football drafts are public and certain athletes monitor their “Fantasy Football status.” No doubt, this is a minor validation in the life of a professional football player, but it is validation indeed—if not for the athlete in question, then for the community of Fantasy Football players. But a counter to that was offered by another friend, Sydney. She nicely flips the issue on its head and reminds us that Fantasy Football participants don’t draft low point scoring do-gooders solely based on their virtuous character or charity work. Thus, we should not concern ourselves with the other end of the spectrum: Fantasy Football is a meta-game about the skill of football players, not of their ability to perform civil service.

And so, returning now to the Klein-inspired question, the crowd then had a chance to weigh in. The feeling in the room seemed mixed, but the underlying theme started to seep out of the conversation: We were actually discussing what it means to live a good, ethical life ourselves, all through the lens of sport.

“We should celebrate moral successes in the same way we criticize and condemn moral failings,” one audience member offered. “It makes a difference if an athlete apologizes and does so sincerely,” shared another, continuing, “There should be room for repentance and growth from athletes.”

As a group, we explored the whole enterprise of moral judgment. One audience member offered concern that we avoid being overtly judgmental and morally self-righteous, and another responded that we need moral judgment and righteousness, but not in a way that is self-righteous or, in his words, glib. So not only should we approach such issues with tact, but we should hold the same lens to ourselves. Near the end, Klein explicitly noted his Aristotelian framework of the ethical life suggesting that we live life not as a collection of ethical episodes but, instead, based on a sense of character and an overall striving to be a virtuous person.

In short, this collective group of sports fans, lawyers, academics, and concerned citizens had touched on themes we value deeply in our own lives—redemption, forgiveness, character, relationships—all through the lens of a game. We did make some progress answering Klein’s initial question, though, more importantly, we walked away not just with answers as to how to approach fantasy sports but how to better live our actual lives.


Jack graduated from Stanford with Honors in Human Biology and earned a masters in philosophy with an emphasis in Sport Ethics graduating summa cum laude from California State University, Long Beach. He has published four books, including “If You Can Read This: The Philosophy of Bumper Stickers” (Random House, 2010), a philosophical novel, “The Dream Weaver” (Penguin, 2008) and a college-level philosophy textbook.  His most recent book, Ethics and Leadership in Sport, comes out in July, 2017. While at Stanford Jack was a 2-time water polo All-American and NCAA MVP and was the alternate goalie on the 2006 Olympic Team. He has coached water polo at Menlo School for the past 17 years, winning the league championship 15 years and the section championship 5 times. In 2011 he was named by the Positive Coaching Alliance as a National Award Winner and now serves as the chair of the National Coaches Council for PCA. He teaches philosophy at Menlo School and serves as their College Athletics Councilor.

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