The Verdict: Conspiracy Theory

As you all know by now, I run a fantasy sports dispute resolution service called Fantasy Judgment. Recently I wrote three separate decisions resolving issues of potential collusion within fantasy football leagues. With this topic fresh on my mind, I thought it would be a good idea to discuss collusion within the context of fantasy baseball leagues and provide some advice and guidance on how to prevent it, spot it, and penalize it.

First off, I would like to give some background on my own personal experience with collusion within a fantasy league. I have been the commissioner of an 18-team, non-keeper, head to head, mixed AL/NL, points fantasy baseball league since 1999. The league has been comprised of friends and family every year. In 2002, a guy I went to high school with attempted to collude with three other league members. However, he was soliciting this collusion over AOL Instant Messenger. These three other league members all brought it to my attention and printed out their entire AIM conversations. The solicitations included agreements to trade certain players as well as sharing monetary prizes at the end of the season. Needless to say, this was as nefarious as it gets.

I thanked all of my honest league members for bringing it to my attention and had to figure out how to deal with this issue. At the time, my league constitution didn’t address collusion because it had never been an issue, and back then I was not as experienced as I am now in addressing all “potential” issues that may arise. I negated all trades that were offered and mandated that the offending team would not be allowed to make any further trades for the rest of the season. He was already out of playoff contention, so I didn’t have to worry about any money issues.

The sad part about the whole thing was that I did consider him a friend. After this incident, I informed him that he was not allowed back in the league the next year and I haven’t spoken to him since then.

This issue in 2002 prompted me to re-write the league’s constitution and address collusion as best I could. I sharpened the criteria that I used as commissioner to evaluate all trades, and I prohibited teams that were mathematically eliminated from playoff contention from making trades the rest of the season. Remember, this is a non-keeper league so there is no building for the future. This rule has been quite effective since 2003 as eliminated teams have no ability to dump players in tainted trades.

Outside of written proof (like I had in 2002) or some other verbal confirmation by the alleged offending parties, collusion can be difficult to prove. I define collusion as a secret agreement or conspiracy especially for fraudulent or treacherous purposes. Collusion is a legal term of art, and conspiring to make a trade in a fantasy sports league pales in comparison to some of the “real world” scenarios where collusive conduct takes place. But there are reasons why I hold fantasy sports teams to the same standard.

Playing fantasy sports is supposed to be a fun and competitive activity to unite friends, family, colleagues, acquaintances and perfect strangers (not Balky) with something in common. And yes, financial gain. But there is an unwritten code of conduct that all fantasy sports players should adhere to which includes fairness and good faith. Besides financial theft or embezzlement, nothing will undermine the integrity of a fantasy sports league more than collusive conduct. This is because it creates an atmosphere of mistrust and skepticism amongst all league members. Once collusive conduct is alleged or even present, then everything else within the league could be subjected to even higher scrutiny for potential impropriety. If this happens, then the fate of that league has already been decided.

To help avoid collusion, you should always be very circumspect about which leagues you choose to join. You may not necessarily know everyone (or even anyone) if you join a public league, so be very mindful of the environment you are getting into. However, you must also be careful not to interpret every little thing as collusion if you disagree with what other people are doing. When two teams agree to a trade that does not look fair or even, it doesn’t automatically mean there is collusion.

Getting back to why collusion is such a big deal, it is because there is intent to deceive that must be present. Two or more people have taken the time to concoct a plan designated to circumventing the established rules of a league for their own benefit. This is the ultimate disrespect and proverbial slap in the face to everyone else in the league. That is why swift and definitive punishments should be administered when collusion is determined or proven.

In my case in 2002, I didn’t have the knowledge, experience, or wherewithal to handle the collusion the way I would today. If that had happened in the present time, I immediately would have kicked that offending team owner out of the league. Recently I reviewed a client’s league constitution, and it included language dealing with collusive conduct. One of the subsections contained guidelines on how to deal with teams involved in collusion, and it included a complete and immediate ban from the league without reimbursement. This was very smart of the league to have such language because then there is no question or doubt about what to do.

The fact is that there is no full-proof way to prevent collusion. If two or more people want to conspire for their own benefit at the expense of everyone else, they are going to do it. Whether they get away with it is another story. There are signs to look for if you suspect people in your league are colluding. But remember, the nature of the relationship between two people in a league is not indicative in and of itself that collusion is present. Merely because two league owners are family members or close friends does not mean that any trades they make rise to the level of collusion.

If you suspect people in your fantasy baseball league are colluding, contact your league commissioner and give him/her specific reasons and examples in support of your position. You do not want to initiate witch hunts without having good knowledge or reason to believe that such activity is taking place. Because if you cry wolf and accuse others of colluding when they are in fact not doing so, then you yourself become a target and get labeled as someone with devious intentions. If your reasons for suspicion have merit, then it makes no difference as to what type of collusion is present. Even if it is something relatively mundane, all forms of collusion should be handled the same way. There are no excuses or justifications for teams to circumvent the rules under any circumstances.

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