I have five fantasy football teams, a Premier League fantasy soccer team and a fantasy basketball team. The draws of fantasy sports are stronger than ever with the rise of daily fantasy sports and a proliferation of websites for the traditional season-long version. Even though fantasy sports take place behind a computer screen, and far from a gridiron or court, there are still moral issues when it comes to our participation in these leagues.
Every sports fan thinks they know best. If only the multi-million dollar franchise would turn its keys over to you, you’d make only right decisions and establish the sort of dynastic legacy that would make Scott Pioli jealous. Fantasy sports gift the power of a general manager to casual and intense fans alike. They offer the opportunity to prove, in a league of friends or strangers, that you are the keenest talent evaluator and savviest dealmaker.
Most fantasy leagues start with a draft, in which the universe of players is completely available to all the owners. Taking turns picking players, participants fill out their rosters with current stars and scrappy role players. Then, when those players perform valuable in-sport actions, such as scoring touchdowns or hitting three-pointers, their fantasy owner reaps virtual points.
While the decisions a fantasy owner makes are contained to a particular fantasy league, there are still moral questions inherent to being a general manager that any mature fantasy player must acknowledge. For instance, this season I have Ezekiel Elliott on one of my fantasy rosters. Elliott is a talented running back for the Dallas Cowboys but is also in the midst of an opaque and confusing domestic abuse case. While he never faced legal charges, the NFL conducted its own investigation of events and suspended Elliott six games — the baseline suspension under the league’s new player conduct policies.
Every sports owner, general manager and coach deals with situations like these throughout their careers, and whether they distance themselves from the player or explain away the immoral conduct reflects a great deal on their organizations. Unfortunately, talent can be the deciding factor in how a franchise responds.
For fantasy owners, this is a dilemma as well. Elliott has received judicial stays on his suspension thus far in the season, allowing him to play, and as such, I’ve started him on my fantasy football team. I’ve played someone I suspect to be a domestic abuser, simply because it will help me win. Certainly the societal damage from my playing Elliott is not the same as the Dallas Cowboys making the same statement, but the prize at the end of my fantasy season is similarly not a Super Bowl ring.
Are fantasy owners who play athletes they believe to have conducted themselves immorally complicit in the societal protection of that behavior? Is it the same as an actual sports executive doing so? I’d say yes, and we can’t expect sports executives to hold the line against immoral behavior when there are real stakes if we can’t even do so playing a game.