The Verdict: what to do when a league owner abandons his team

At this point in the short history of fantasy sports, it is less likely that someone would pay money to participate in a league and then just ignore his team. That is because there is so much time, money and energy invested in playing fantasy sports, an activity in which over 27 million Americans participate. With so many different types of leagues that are customizable to the point where it is virtually impossible to not find exactly what you are looking for, it is unfathomable to think that someone could join a league and then simply abandon his team.

By “abandon” I mean let his team sit idle for several weeks in a row with no changes, transactions or updates to his roster or lineup when it is plainly obvious that changes need to be made (i.e., injuries, demotion to the minor leagues, slumps, etc.). This scenario could elicit a myriad of reactions, depending on what kind of league you are in. But what should a league commissioner do if a league member truly does abandon his team and creates either a “bye” in a head-to-head points league or the automatic floor in a roto league? The commissioner is in a precarious predicament when confronted with such a situation because whatever decision he makes will likely not appease everyone else, and he must also be sensitive to how his own needs are considered by the other league members.

Recently, a case was submitted to Fantasy Judgment with this exact scenario. Below is the official opinion written resolving the issue with guidance and recommendations offered by the Court.

SUPREME COURT OF FANTASY JUDGMENT

Miguel’s Mashers, et al. v. Detroit’s Finest

ON PETITION FOR WRIT OF CERTIORARI FROM
THE MOTOR CITY FANTASY BASEBALL LEAGUE

Decided May 6, 2011
Cite as 3 F.J. 19 (May 2011)

Factual Background

A rotisserie fantasy baseball league (hereinafter referred to as “Roto league” or “The Motor City Fantasy Baseball League”) seeks a determination whether the Commissioner can cede control of a team that has been allegedly abandoned. The Motor City Fantasy Baseball League (“MCFBL”) also seeks guidance on what to do with the abandoned team and its players. This is a 12-team, mixed AL/NL keeper league where each team is permitted to maintain up to five players during each offseason with each individual player allowed to be kept for a maximum of three years. Each team is also permitted to keep three minor league players which are in addition to the five players kept. The MCFBL utilized a snake draft and permits transitions through the free agent auction bidding process.

As with many rotisserie leagues, the subject Roto league uses the standard 5×5 scoring categories to determine the standings and prize money. For offensive players, the five categories are: (1) batting average; (2) home runs; (3) runs batted in; (4) runs scored; and (5) stolen bases. For pitchers, the five categories are: (1) wins; (2) earned run average; (3) WHIP (walks+hits/innings pitched); (4) strikeouts; and (5) saves. Statistics are cumulative throughout the course of the season and there are no head-to-head games contained within the Roto league.

Detroit’s Finest appears to have abandoned his team or at least has not made any attempts to make improvements through transactions, trades or lineup changes.

Procedural History

The MCFBL was formed in 2004 amongst friends from college. Of the 12 teams currently in the league, only two were not original members from 2004. One of these newer teams is Detroit’s Finest who joined the league in 2009 when an opening was created due to the departure of a league member who recently had a baby. Detroit’s Finest was brought into the league by the Commissioner whom he knew personally for several years. In 2009 and 2010, Detroit’s Finest finished near the bottom of the standings and typically did not make many transactions or engage in trade discussions. He made his league entry fee payments of an undisclosed amount in a timely manner, as did all other members of the league.

Entering the 2011 season, Detroit’s Finest elected to keep Tim Lincecum and Ryan Howard as his only keepers. He participated in the draft and acquired such players as Brandon Belt, Josh Hamilton, and Mariano Rivera. However, after Hamilton was injured earlier in the season, he never made any effort to replace him on his roster and in fact left Hamilton in his starting lineup every week accumulating no statistics as he is on the disabled list. Three separate teams in the league made trade proposals to Detroit’s Finest offering various outfielders to compensate for the loss of Hamilton, but no response was given to any of the proposals. Calls and emails from the league’s Commissioner went unanswered. Additionally, Belt was sent down to the minors yet Detroit’s Finest has not removed him from his starting lineup. The league Commissioner saw Detroit’s Finest in person recently and he evaded questions about his fantasy team.

Detroit’s Finest currently is in last place in the MCFBL’s standings, 18 points behind the next-highest team. Several members of the league have complained to the Commissioner to do something about this. Some suggested solutions have been to abandon the team and redistribute the players in a supplemental draft, as well as to find a replacement owner to take over control.

The Commissioner has elected to do nothing at this point. Members of the league, on behalf of the Commissioner, now seek guidance in how to handle the situation going forward. The MCFBL does have a written Constitution, but it does not contain any provisions for dealing with this specific occurrence.

Issue Presented

(1) What should be done to handle an allegedly abandoned team?

Decision

The Supreme Court of Fantasy Judgment is a strong advocate for having written Constitutions that govern fantasy sports leagues. See John Doe v. Fantasy Football League Commissioner, 2 F.J. 21, 22 (October 2010). One of the primary reasons behind having a written Constitution is so that all league members are aware of the rules and guidelines in place that govern the administration and function of the fantasy league. See Shawn Kemp is My Daddy v. Fantasy Basketball League Commissioner, 2 F.J. 24, 25 (October 2010). When a league Commissioner writes out the rules and distributes them to the league, it shifts the burden onto the league members to read, understand, and adhere to the rules that are delineated. If a league member has an issue, question or challenge to one of the rules in the Constitution, they are welcome to raise this with the Commissioner before signing it or agreeing to its codification.

First, the Court recognizes the courage of the Commissioner to not make any rash decisions that could potentially call into question his integrity. The Commissioner very easily could have made a decision that somehow benefited him personally, but instead he has patiently sought the advice of the Court for guidance. The Court strongly frowns upon league Commissioners arbitrarily making decisions that do not benefit the league as a whole. See Flemish USA v. League Commissioner, 2 F.J. 35, 37 (October 2010).

On top of the fact that there is no language in the league’s Constitution dealing with this particular issue, there is also no language within the Constitution that discusses what the procedure is to handle an issue of first impression such as this. When a league Constitution is silent, the Court will defer to the default premise that a league Commissioner has the authority and discretion to handle an issue of first impression within the best interests of the league. See George v. LOEG Commissioner, 2 F.J. 42, 44 (October 2010). Normally, the Court does not advocate creating or amending rules in the middle of a season unless there are extraordinary circumstances involved, such as preventing a complete mutiny and subsequent meltdown of the league. See John Doe v. Fantasy Football League Commissioner, 2 F.J. 21, 22 (October 2010). Here, it is clear that several members of the league have requested the Commissioner take action in handling this situation. However, the record is devoid of any references to threats to quit the league or disband.

While it is never a positive scenario when a fantasy owner has purportedly stopped paying attention and managing his team. This leads to an unbalance in the standings because that abandoned team essentially guarantees a floor in a roto league or a bye in a head-to-head league. This obviously affects the standings and potential prize winnings down the road. However, Detroit’s Finest had already paid his league entry fee which will in turn be distributed to the league winners at the end of the season. It is well-established law that teams that pay to participate in fantasy leagues should be given the freedom to manage their teams accordingly. See 4 Ponies v. Carson City Cocks, 3 F.J. 13 (May 2011). Here, while it is unfortunate that Detroit’s Finest has inexplicably elected not to effectively manage his team, the fact remains that he paid for the ability to do what he pleases with his team, even at his own detriment. It is understood that this methodology does not necessarily comport with basic standards of competition and good faith. However, electing another option poses greater danger to the league in terms of overall fairness.

To take control over Detroit’s Finest through fantasy eminent domain is not an ideal option. Giving control of the team to the Commissioner, another team, or the league overall simply creates more controversy than what already exists. Everyone’s own self-serving motivations would go into whatever decisions had to be made for that team. Disbanding the team and redistributing the players in a supplemental draft is not a good choice either because of the myriad of questions that are created in determining the draft order and comporting with everyone’s already existing roster requirements and limitations. The most ideal scenario is to find someone else outside the league to take over control of the team as it currently stands. Assuming this cannot be done, the Court rules that the status quo is what is best for the league. If Detroit’s Finest is destined to remain at the bottom of the standings, then that is not problematic. No matter what, one team will have to be at the bottom of the standings at the end of the year. In this case, the only difference is that it is likely a foregone conclusion which team that will be.

Based on the foregoing reasons, the Court hereby decides that the Commissioner should not do anything in terms of taking control of Detroit’s Finest. Electing to maintain the status quo eliminates any potential impropriety or the advancement of further issues. It also leaves the door open for the owner of Detroit’s Finest to come back and take over control of his team again at a later date. In the best interests of the league, as well as comporting with the duties and responsibilities of being Commissioner, the Court concludes that nothing should be done in response to the alleged abandonment of the fantasy baseball team in the MCFBL.

IT IS SO ORDERED.

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Comments

  1. Tom B said...

    What would be the purpose of a “minimum innings pitched” in a roto league? 

    If you don’t pitch enough innings you would lose every standard counting category except the rates… and this is why losses doesn’t belong in fantasy baseball.

  2. Derek Ambrosino said...

    Citation of the Shawn Kemp Is My Daddy case from Oct 2010…hilarious.

    It’s also fairly statistically likely that the team name reveals an actual truth as well! (although it is also likely the daddy in question in Antonio Crommartie.)

  3. Derek Ambrosino said...

    The real issue in abandonment that all those who play fantasy sports needs to realize, especially potential those thinking of abandoning, is that the abandonment doesn’t impact all other teams equally.

    In a H2H league this is most apparent because even if the abandoned team becomes a virtual bye, not every team will play that team an equal number of times.

    But, this happens in a roto league too, just more subtly. The lower you are in the standings of a particular category, the more likely you are to benefit from an abandoned team. Think about this like the unearned run rules in MLB – what would have happened in the case of “errorless play.”

    If I’m taking the 12 in Ws, most likely I’d continue to do so regardless of what the abandoned team had done. I’m going to be generous and say that in a 12 team league, the likelihood of the abandoned team pulling the 12 in a category in the event of errorless play is 1 in 12. It’s most probable that it is even less, if you grant the seemingly self-evident notion that the best players are likely less likely to default and therefore the odds of an abandoned team finishing 1st in any category is skewed lower than equal by a selection bias.

    Anyway, most likely that team does not materially benefit at all from such a situation. However, as you go lower down the totem pole in each category, it becomes more likely that errorless play would have had an impact on a team’s point total. Depending on how the categories are distributed, this can have a big impact on the standings.

    Even, minor breeches of abandonment can be important. We have a guy in my main league who will sometimes go out, get hammered and sleep into the afternoon. Well, if he leaves 2 wins on his bench (this happened to him with Cole Hamels twice this year already), and I’m in firt place by 1 point, but then the second place team ties me because he passes the Cole Hammered (should be his team name, but it’s), then I suffer from Cole’s actions (assuming errorless play from him wouldn’t have beaten me too).

    The point is not everybody gets the free points you give away when you abandon your team. If the impact was equal, abandonment wouldn’t be a league integrity issue, it would just a personal integrity issue. Joining a fantasy baseball league is a commitment – yes, a minor commitment in comparison to what we think of when the word is mentioned – but a commitment nonetheless. When you break that commitment you are making a statement about how much you care not just about the league, but the others in the league.

  4. uhhhjboy said...

    “hey, do you know what people love?  reading legal documents.

    this format is really tiring.”

    /agree

  5. chuck said...

    being a commissioner of baseball and football leagues, it is NEVER in the best interestes of the league to maintain a status quo with an owner who has given up.

    the best solution would be to find a replacement owner, prorate the franchise fee to the number of weeks played and refund the offending owner from the money received from the new guy.  that way, the deadbeat gets a refund for the time NOT played and the league has a new owner, more eager to play than the old guy.

  6. Brad Johnson said...

    Yahoo now offers the option of handing over a roster to a new owner. I run a $20, 12 team league with a short waiting list. In the event a team gets abandoned, I will find a new owner for the team. That owner gets free entry and a chance at some of the prize money (1st-3rd get paid + a 2nd half winner award to discourage early season fire sales). The new owner also gets the opportunity to scrounge about for his own keepers. The league benefits from having an active owner in a sort of trial period.

  7. Scott said...

    Saw this pop up on twitter a couple days back, and wanted to comment.

    The one problem with your ruling is that many leagues require a minimum IP. If the minimum isn’t hit by the end of the season, then the team in question gets 1 point in each pitching category.

    If, right now, MIGUEL’S is at 5-7 points in each pitching category, AND he doesn’t return in time to meet the min. IP, that doesn’t mean every team underneath him is going to move up one spot, once he moves to the bottom.

    What could happen is that teams are making moves and trades based on -faulty- data for the rest of the season, and that leads to misinformation, which could mean that someone might find out on the last day, that they’re not where they thought they were, and might lose out on winning.

  8. Derek Ambrosino said...

    The thing is, who wants to pay a fairly pro-rated entry fee to take over a team that’s been put behind the 8-ball. (And, this is worse is a keeper league, because in this situation it’s not exactly unlikely his/her keepers suck too)In an ideal world, the new owner shouldn’t have to pay to take over the team, but have a chance to win. That’s the incentive to inherit a team that’s in bad shape vs. the ability to build you own – the chance to win that first hand without having to place the bet.

    If that owner wins, as a show of good faith, he/she should reimburse the abandoning owner. If he doesn’t, than the other own gets nothing because he/she’d already resigned to the outcome of not winning any money by ceasing participation in the league.

    Oh, and the legal format is simultaneously, amusing, annoying, sophisticatedly self-efacing, pretentious, appropriat and pedantic.

    Look, the Herbert Kornfield, Accountz Recievabo columns in The Onion aren’t exactly easy to read either, but if the form fits the persona the author creates, it’s a winner.

  9. Michael A. Stein said...

    The IDEAL solution would be to find someone else to take over the abandoned team and have their respective financial contributions resolved amicably (however that may be).  But the point of the decision is that finding a suitable replacement to pick up the pieces of a likely floundering team is slim.  The recommendations and guidance provided in the opinion were based on what realistically will take place and given that there was still a chance Detroit’s Finest would come back at some point to manage his team.  It also alleviates the Commissioner from having to make any potentially arbitrary decisions.

    What you are reading is synonymous with the decision rendered on the issue.  Given that fantasy baseball disputes and issues is the primary topic I write about, I felt that the issue could be best laid out and examined using the same format.  I am a lawyer and I don’t particularly love reading legal documents.  But a legal document about fantasy baseball is intended to inform and entertain.

    Some of the suggestions offered in the comments are useful and legitimate.  However, when looking at the issue in a vacuum, it is unlikely that the stars would align for such a perfect and harmonious resolution to take place.  Not all leagues are keepers, rotisserie, or public.  Finding a replacement and proprtionately distributing the money can be a shot in the dark.

  10. varmintito said...

    In a roto league, this is the correct, and easy, call.  If a replacement owner is not found, the team becomes a feature of the lanscape that has to be navigated around, but does not substantially alter the competition among those who continue to compete.

    Truth be told, I’ve been in leagues where some managers love getting together for the auction, and enjoy the gamesmanship of the auction itself, but do little if anything to manage their teams.  The rest of the owners adapt just fine.

    In H2H leagues, it is a problem. 

    First, the degree of gimme increases with time as the number of unreplaced injured/ineffective players mounts.  If the guy had a strong draft, he might even win a couple of early season tilts before the team drifts toward suckitude.

    Second, it robs whoever is playing the ghost team of the pleasure of competing for the week.  Why push yourself when the other team has a guy on the DL, another in the minors, and another that is the wrong half of a platoon?

    Not sure what the solution is there.

  11. Kevin Wilson said...

    Maybe a pool of replacement owners in waiting that a bunch of dedicated fantasy players could join, and pull from when needed. The fantasy equivalent of the take a penny, leave a penny jar.

    You could only pull an owner from the pool if you yourself have joined the pool.

  12. Derek Ambrosino said...

    Well, if the owner has paid, as you say, and just isn’t managing, another solution that might be realistic would be to ask that owner to cede control of his team to another owner who would actually manage it. The replacement owner would play for free and work out a split with the absentee owner so that the absentee owner gets a chance at money without any work, while the new owner get a chance at money without having to risk any of his.

    …Actually, that’s pretty much what I said up front. Absent of the default, do nothing solution, I think this idea is actually the most likely to be acceptable to all parties involved.
    There’s incentive for all parties – the absentee owner, the replacement owner, and the third party teams in the league.

  13. Paul Cromwell said...

    I agree with the decision of the Court – and the need for League by-laws/constitutions. We are in our 22nd year of Roto with only minor changes in our by-laws.  While we have had a few slackers, there have been no in season abandonments and no divisive debates with respect to the slackers. I suggest that leagues change their minimum innings pitched rules to simply state that a team that fails to meet the minimum may not receive an award at the end of the season. And…has the Court considered posting examples of model roto by-laws on the web?

  14. JB (the Original) said...

    I’m in a 14 team roto (non-keeper) and we had this happen last year to us.  What we ended up doing was the league manager notified him that “he was done”, took control of his team, and benched everyone on it for the rest of the season.  Unfortunately, it was early enough that he still had inflated AVG and OBP which would essentially lock him as the ‘winner” of those categories, but otherwise, his guys collected no more stats for the year.

  15. Greg Patterson said...

    1. All league by-laws should set out expectations for owners, and at minimum have a clause that the commissioner can take actions deemed in the best interests of the league.

    2. Paying your league dues does not mean that you are entitled to disrupt all of the other owners. Think of going to watch a movie. You pay your entry fee, but once inside you decide not to pay attention and decide have a loud conversation on your phone and disrupt all those around you. Hey, you paid your fees and there is no explicit rules posted that you have to pay attention to the movie, so you’re good to go, right?

    3. I commish two leagues, a 14 team and a 24 team monster. I’ve got over 40+ seasons of being a commissioner as well. I’ve had to make some difficult and controversial decisions over the years, but since all of my actions I try to go in the best interests of the league, I have very rarely had any problems from dissenting owners. They may not like my decisions, but they respect them.

    That being said, I find the ruling above simply terrible. It was a cop-out and followed the path of least resistance. No one can create a document that covers all contingencies, you have to be able to use your noggin to think things through and do what’s right for everyone involved.

    The ruling when against what was best for the other owners, the league itself, and even the offending owner (he would be better off in the long run to know that his behavior is unacceptable, now he faces no consequences and will likely repeat in some other football or baseball league). 

    On the whole, I was really disappointed.

  16. Derek Ambrosino said...

    Love the movie theater analogy, Greg.

    I’m not sure why there’s such an impetus on the notion that the abandoning owner need to be compensated/reimbursed once control is taken of his/her team. That owner has implicitly acquiesced to giving that money away without chance of reimbursement by the act of not disengagement and not competing in an activity where competition and engagement are necessary in order to receive compensation/reimbursement.

    Now, if you have such a phenomenal draft that you can neglect that team, while that team continues to be competitive, then perhaps we’re in a grey area. But, that’s the exception, not the rule.

    To further Greg’s point, there are plenty of legal parallels for a person purchasing a commodity and subsequently having that commodity confiscated without reimbursement to that party because the owner was using that commodity in a manner inconsistent with the law, or sometimes even just plain old community norms (much more of a grey area).

    Now, in this case, what is needed to be able to enforce such a hostile takeover without refund is a set of rules that define abandonment; once you commit that infraction, you forefit the other rights you have as an owner. In my main league, we have a process whereby any owner can call out another owner for being an absentee owner by citing egregious examples of non-rotation, etc. Offending owners are first punished, then fined, and ultimately, there’s a process where such an owner would lose rights to the team and his entry fee. In 8 years, we’ve never gotten past they, hey dude, put Josh Hamilton on the DL already message board post.

  17. Brad Johnson said...

    But it’s May 11th…last season I had a guy who had a surprise business trip to Europe disappear without a word for 4 weeks. I’m sure he would have been displeased if his team was gone without compensation when he returned.

    It’s early enough in the season where the abandonment could be an extenuating circumstance.

    The key is to have clear language that defines exactly what abandonment is and the penalties. That way when an owner disappears, he knows what will happen.

  18. Michael A. Stein said...

    In this particular case, I was presented with a limited set of facts and details.  The league’s set of written rules did not contain provisions for abandoned teams or how to handle issues of first impression.  Generally speaking, it is ideal to define “abandonment” with some objective and quantifiable criteria so it can be determined whether someone has in fact abandoned their team.  In this case, it is debatable because it is only the beginning of May.  Certainly it doesn’t look good that Detroit’s Finest left some players in his lineup that he clearly should have replaced.  But that isn’t proof beyond a reasonable doubt that he has in fact abandoned his team. 

    I am not saying that the standard of proof is the same as in criminal law.  Rather, the point is that Detroit’s Finest could have had something personal come up in his life that took precedent over handling his fantasy team.  That does not make it any better, but we just don’t know what his intent or state of mind is.  Rather than make a drastic decision, the ruling was to take the path of least resistance given the circumstances.

    The movie theater analogy is splitting hairs.  If I pay to see a movie and then fall asleep or just check Twitter on my phone the entire time, I am entitled to do that.  I don’t HAVE to pay attention.  But if my own actions disrupt others and prevent them from doing what they paid to do, then that is untolerable behavior.  In a fantasy league, if I pay money to participate and then don’t do anything to manage my team, I have not prevented anyone else from doing what they paid to do.  Sure, there may be some results that are skewed with an inactive owner, but it is not stopping anyone else from managing their own team.

    I am in agreement that having a provision for abandonment and defining exactly what it is are necessary within a league’s written rules.  However, not all leagues have this or will have it in the future.  Each court decision is made on a case by case basis, and in this instance, the decision to maintain the status quo if a suitable replacement could not be found was what was best for the league given what was disclosed in the initial complaint.

  19. Kevin Wilson said...

    ESPN allows the LM to manage the team owners- you could add a second owner then delete the first. You wouldn’t even need the absentee owner’s consent.

  20. Brad Johnson said...

    Kevin,

    The problem is that if someone pays to join a league and your league doesn’t have explicit rules defining and banning abandonment, it’s really shady to kick a guy out. At the very least you have to refund their money and nobody wants to give up easy money.

  21. JB (the Original) said...

    You know, we’re all discussing (arguing) about the “legalities” and nuances of managing a league and what to do about absentee owners, but let’s be honest, is that what we really care/think about?  Or is it that he’s got Miggy and Baustista going to utter waste, and you’re suffering through Morales and Zimmerman with slim pickins available in the FA pile.

  22. Kevin Wilson said...

    Brad,
    To your point about kicking out a paying owner, I disagree. Unless I speak to that owner and he tells me that his specific strategy is a laissez-faire one, as LM, I would invoke the “best interest of the league” clause in our constitution that allows me to act accordingly. It’s a broad clause, but a fairly standard one, and I think it covers this type of incidence.

  23. JB (the Original) said...

    Obviously, Yehoshua is someone who either A. hasn’t played/commited to a Fantasy Baseball league before, or B.  Auto-drafted a crappy team that has no chance of winning/being in the money and so just doesn’t want to play anymore and has ditched his team. (and it sounds like this isn’t the 1st time)

  24. Yehoshua Friedman said...

    All I can say to you guys is, get a life. This is a recreational activity. In the real world, this is one of the ways that people goof off. It’s your Walter Mitty life in which you dream of being a manager or GM of a top team. Wonderful. But sometimes the real world or a person’s personal problems makes them drop out from playing for a while. Wait’ll next year! Like, who died?

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