From the Black Sox scandal of 1919 to 2007’s Spygate, the videotaping controversy involving the New England Patriots, competitive sports and ethics have been incompatible bedfellows. Such recent scandals as Enron and the subprime mortgage crisis show how corporate business has been fertile soil for ethical missteps. With these things in mind, the recent fantasy sports scandals should come as little surprise. Fantasy sports is both sports and business—a double danger of bending or breaking norms that maintain fairness and public trust.
In fantasy sports, players assemble virtual teams with real-life athletes and play against one another for big money. The scandal involves allegations that fantasy firms’ employees were using insider information to make jackpot-winning bets. Rotisserie League gaming (the most common method of fantasy baseball) is many decades old and now has made it to the major leagues. During this journey, it has found a new identity as a “sport.” Monopoly is a game; fantasy sports are played with real, and big, money. The lines have been blurred with ESPN (“The World Wide Leader in Sports”) giving fantasy gaming the same standing as the National Football League, the National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball, and the National Hockey League on the navigation bar of its home page. Just like general managers of professional sports teams, fantasy sports competitors manage real athletes who put up real points to win them real championships. There is little that is frivolous about fantasy sports in this day and age.
Beyond fantasy sports being more real than ever, the business is booming. The advertised potential profits from playing exceed the median household income in the United States. Playing could be better business than your 9-to-5 job. Moreover, being part of fantasy sports is simply good business. New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, two very successful businessmen, are investors in online fantasy sports companies. Either way you cut it, there is a perception that significant money is to be had by being part of these games.
Competition and money: a mix ripe for ethical missteps.
It is easy to take a holier-than-thou look at the suspect behaviors of fantasy sport company employees, yet it may be wiser to realize the ease of neglecting good judgment in this environment. A long, long time ago, sports was seen as recreation. Play. Trivial. While these are quaint ideals, it would be na?ve not to think that sports has become a serious part of our competitive and entertainment landscape. Despite the rising stakes of athletics, it is warming to think of fantasy sports as a pure, fun-loving endeavor. If it was, why would it be regulated like a serious business? It’s simply a recreational activity where a few friends try to guess who will play well each week—right?
The fantasy factor and the anonymity of the online world can easily separate a player from good sense. In a world where opponents don’t interact in the flesh and athletes are simple statistics on a screen, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that using insider knowledge to slant the playing field causes harm to others.
Studies have shown that the farther one is from genuine human social contact in a situation, the easier it is to make questionable moral decisions. In many respects, cheating at fantasy sports feels like a victimless crime. Yet the financial cost to others is rarely calculated, nor is the moral cost of deceit earnestly explored. The other players aren’t friends or neighbors vividly sharing their frustration or loss. Screen names are abstract entities that have little emotional resonance with others. When competitive communities are socially disconnected, cheating takes root much more easily.
It appears that these concepts and safeguards were neglected during the development of the fantasy gaming industry. It was all good fun, until it became a big-time sport and big business. Just as competitive sports needs ethical coaches and sports science professionals to protect players, so does fantasy sports. Just as professional sports needs leagues that assure fairness to preserve the trust of the fans, so does fantasy sports. Just as big business needs checks and balances to assure ethical practices to protect clients and the public welfare, so does fantasy sports. The recent scandals in the fantasy sports industry were preventable. As always, hindsight is 20-20, and future regulatory decisions hopefully will shape the fantasy landscape to provide a fair playing field for all.
Adam Naylor (SED’97,’01) is a School of Education clinical assistant professor of counseling psychology, human development, and sports psychology; he has educated and coached Olympic, college, major league, and minor league athletes for more than a decade. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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