Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Are Fantasy Sports Irresponsible?

[Cross-posted from SportsEthicist.com ]

Fantasy Football season is just starting to spin up and millions of football fans are beginning to think about their top draft prospects or clever names for their teams. As big as it is, it is not surprising that it has started to get more and more scholarly attention. Chad Carlson and I discussed philosophical questions arising in fantasy in a podcast back in December (Mike and I also talked fantasy last August).

Scott Aikin joins the fray with his relatively recent article in the International Journal of Applied Philosophy entitled “Responsible Sports Spectatorship and the Problem of Fantasy Leagues”. Aikin says Fantasy Sports can bring about “a unique form of distortion of proper spectator performance” (195). In sum, his argument is that those who watch sporting events for the purpose of participating in a fantasy league are failing to be what he calls “responsible spectators”.

Using several different kinds of cases where a spectator intuitively appears to fall short of spectator norms, Aikin presents a “norm of responsible spectatorship” (199):
Responsible spectators (a) strive to make sense of the individual games they watch in terms of the objectives of the game, (b) pull for properly sporting actions in the game, and (c) pursue these ends in ways that appropriately fit with their wider ethical obligations (199-200).
Fantasy players fail, according to Aikin, to satisfy these norms.  They fail on (a) and (b) because they don’t watch a game as an integrated whole. They watch and root for specific actions by specific players irrespective of the consequence of those actions on the actual game played. For example, rooting for a team to go for a touchdown in a situation where the game-situation calls for running down the clock and kicking a game-clinching field goal (a ‘b’ failure). Moreover, fantasy players fail to see the game as a whole: it’s not Patriots vs. Jets; it’s whether Brady throws enough TDs (an ‘a’ failure).

Aikin also argues that fantasy players fail on (c) because of they are concerned only with “the greedy self-gratification of collecting further points for a team consisting of bytes and bits in cyberspace” (201-2).  All these failures, argues Aikin, show us that fantasy players fail to make sense of the game as the game it is; there is a “failure to properly attend to games” (202).

There are a number of issues I have with Aikin’s paper and I won’t tackle them all here. The primary one is that I don’t think he takes seriously enough just what fantasy sports are; or rather, what it is that fantasy players are doing when they watch the sporting events upon which the fantasy games is based.

Aikin’s claim is that fantasy players are improper spectators of the sport. They should be watching the game as it is but instead are watching particular players or actions in various games. Moreover, they ought to be concerned with the narrative or structure of the game they are watching but fantasy players are not primarily concerned about the particular game and its unfolding action. They are concerned with a range of actions across many games.

In this description, Aikin is correct: fantasy player qua fantasy player is not watching the sport event qua sporting event. But this fact doesn’t establish that the fantasy player is doing something irresponsible or improper.

On one hand, Aikin’s argument amounts to a trivial claim: People watching fantasy sports are not watching a sporting event as a sporting event. But that’s just saying that A and non-A are not identical.  On the other hand, he seems to be saying something much more substantial: Watching sporting events in a way that is not watching it as a sporting event is wrong (or improper or irresponsible). But this seems clearly wrong without a substantial argument to support it and Aikin’s argument doesn’t get the job done.

He has to show that (1) his vision of proper spectatorship is superior to others and (2) that these norms of spectatorship apply to the fantasy player. I think Aikin falls short on both accounts (but I’m only going to deal with (2) in this post).

He attempts to address (2) within his Fourth Objection. This is the “just another game objection” (204).  The objection says that fantasy players are not sport spectators; they are watching a different game altogether. That is, in watching the Bears take on the Rams, the fantasy player isn’t watching a football match qua football match. He is watching the game to see how it impacts his fantasy team as well learn about other the athletes for future moves and fantasy games. So the fact that he doesn’t fit the norms of the responsible spectatorship is not a problem because these norms don’t actually apply to him in this context.

Aikin’s response is that the fantasy player is nonetheless watching the game. He is not merely checking the stats; he is watching the game and so ought to abide by the appropriate norms of watching.  But this is to miss the objection almost in its entirety.

Fantasy sports, as Chad Carlson articulates, are second-order games. There are games built of off other games in which others are directly engaged. They are also not reducible to these first-order games: they are different games with different rules and ends.

In playing the second-order game, one is attending to and concerned with the actions at the first-level. But the context and intent of their attention and concern is different. The watching of the sport is not watching the sport qua sport. It is watching the sport qua playing the second-order game. The requisite norms that apply have to do with playing the second-order game. The fact that one may not thereby be complying with the norms of watching the first-order game is not then baldly a deficiency.

It can be a deficiency if one intends to be watching the first-order game qua game but then doesn’t live up to those relevant norms. This is a deficiency of hypocrisy. But that’s not the issue that Aikin is taking up.

It can also be deficient if the first-order game has a privileged status. This seems to be what Aikin believes, but it is never argued for. The privileged status is not automatic merely because it is first-order.

For the sake of argument (but only for the sake of argument), I’ll concede that fantasy players are deficiently watching the games from Aikin’s standard of responsible spectatorship. However, if they are doing something else by their watching then it is not obvious or necessary that this standard applies.

An appreciator of great art walks through the Louvre. She stops at the classic paintings that exemplify the standards and purposes of great art. She attends to them as she learned to do as an Art History major. She is, let’s say, a responsible appreciator of paintings.

Another patron is walking through the Louvre. He stops at paintings with no discernable pattern from the perspective of the standards of great works. He doesn’t pay attention to some paintings that from the norms of a responsible appreciator of paintings he ought. After each viewing, he checks a few things off on his computer tablet and moves on. He seems deficient in his art appreciation. And maybe if his intent was to appreciate the paintings as the previous patron, he would be. But he is actually engaged in an online game with patrons at art museums all over the world.  He is checking off that, for example, he found a painting of a farmhouse or one that doesn’t include the color red. He is attending to very different kinds of things about the paintings than the Art Historian because his goals are different. It is unreasonable to hold him to the Art Historian standard of appreciation. It’s just not what he is engaged in even if it looks similar.

He is engaged in a second-order game. It is built off of the first-order activity of art appreciation, but it is not the same thing. Like many second-order games, it can run counter to the goals and aims of art appreciation (e.g. the painting of the farmhouse that the game players are hunting down might barely be museum-worthy) and so the norms for each activity will be different (though not necessarily at odds or mutually exclusive).

The point is that insofar as the art scavenger hunt game-player is trying to appreciate art, he may be falling short. But since that is not what he is doing, then it is a mistake to apply that standard to him.

The same goes for the fantasy sport player. He might be in various ways failing short of the standards of spectatorship as Aikin presents it, but since that’s not the activity he is primarily engaged in, we shouldn’t be holding him to that standard.

That said, there is nothing inherently incompatible here. The art scavenger hunt game-player can at the same time conform to the art appreciation standards as he plays his game. And maybe he can learn more about these standards and art itself by playing the scavenger game.

Similarly, the fantasy player can uphold the standards of good spectatorship while also engaging in fantasy. I don’t take these as mutually exclusive activities and, though they can at times be at odds, they are more often, I think, reinforcing of each other. (One learns more about the athletes, the game, its intricacies and strategies, etc. and through this can appreciate the first-order game more. Much like the art scavenger hunt is probably a great way to learn about art.)

So while there is a bit of a concession here (the fantasy player is not watching sport as one ought to be watching sport qua watching sport); this concession doesn’t undermine the counter to Aikin’s argument against fantasy. The fantasy player is not being an irresponsible spectator nor is he failing short of an obligation of spectatorship. He is not, when he is playing fantasy, being a spectator and so the norms just don’t apply.

This leaves open an important question, one that is probably more philosophically important. Does Aikin get the norms of spectatorship correct? That’ll have to be a discussion for a future post.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Emily Ryall on Philosophy of Sport

The University of Gloucestershire Religion, Philosophy, and Ethics website has several short videos about the Philosophy of Sport with fellow Philosophy of Sport blogger Dr. Emily Ryall. Dr. Ryall is a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Gloucestershire.
The videos are good introductions to some interesting questions and important issues in Philosophy of Sport.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

What Crying Brazilians Tells Us About Fandom

[Cross-posted from SportsEthicist.com]

In the wake of the devastating shellacking of Brazil at the feet of German side, we saw hundreds, if not thousands, of pictures of crying and tearful Brazilians. Many sports fan empathized with these pictures. Part of being a fan is suffering through bad losses. Every true sports fan has been on the losing side at one time or another. We know how those Brazilian fans felt.

Others raised the ridiculousness of crying over a game, especially a game one didn’t even participate in. It is one thing if you played in a game, gave your proverbial all, and then were overcome with emotion (such as Columbia’s James Rodriguez). But for fans in the stands or out on street to cry strikes many as silly. Something must be really out of whack.

There are really two questions here. One: is crying an appropriate emotional response to a sporting event? Two: is it appropriate to have one’s identity so connected to a sporting event/team?

The second question arises because of what I think the correct answer is to the first question. Sports fan invest a lot of themselves into their teams. This is not just a financial thing (tickets, merchandise, etc.), but a connection to one’s identity. For a die-hard sports fans, the game isn’t something we watch as entertainment the way one might watch and be fans of Games of Thrones(*). One’s sense of self: who they are, where they are from, what they value; is wrapped up in their sports fandom. Fandom is a mode of self-expression. To say one is a Boston Red Sox fan tells the world a little something about who one is.

It is apt that sports fans speak of having their hearts broken by their teams: there is something analogous between close personal relationships and sports fandom. The relationship takes time to build and develop. Whatever you think about ‘love at first sight’, the relationship – its meaning and role in one’s life—takes time. And one doesn’t just become a Red Sox fan. You have to grow into it; you have to earn the ability to say you are a true fan.  (Side note: this is why I don’t call myself a Liverpool fan. I follow them. I root for them. But I haven’t earned the title of fan yet. To stretch the analogy here: we are dating and having fun; seeing where it might go.)

Much more could and needs to be said about the connections between identity and fandom. However, if we can see that many die-hard sports fans, like many Brazilian futbol fans, have a deep identity connection to their team, it makes sense that such a devastation loss (especially in a World Cup on your home soil where you were one of the favorites to win) would lead to tears.

This is where the second question comes in to play. Is it rational or moral to have one’s identity so profoundly connected to a sports team?

My short answer is yes. While, as with anything, one can go too far here, by and large, I think deep fandom is a healthy and fun way of being one’s self. The longer answer still needs to be worked out and developed but let me suggest a few points.

The fun part is mostly self-explanatory. It provides moments of joy and excitement. Still, there are times that it doesn’t feel very fun (that’s what all the crying is about after all). But, overall, in the bigger picture of a being a fan, it is fun and thrilling.

Sports Fandom is also by and large healthy. Fandom is an expression of choice and commitment. It is part of a process of self-definition. We define ourselves by the choices and commitments we make and this includes which sports and teams we choose to follow.

Fandom ties one into a community, providing feelings of connectedness to a region, city, or tradition. It is a way of being with others and sharing values with others.

Being a fan of a sport team or club is better than something more insidious like seeking the sense of community from a gang or looking for greatness in pushes for national conquests. Better that nationalism gets expressed in a sporting event than in geo-politics. The former might unfortunately lead to some fist fights in the stands, but the latter leads to wars.

Go ahead and cry Brazil. Let it all out.

<em>(*)Update clarification: I don't mean to imply or suggest that non-sport fandoms can't or don't invest part of their identity in their fandom. (As a Browncoat I wouldn't want to make that mistake.) I only mean to say that sports fandom is not just about entertainment. I am not trying to say anything about other kinds of fandoms.
</em>

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Reminder: CFA for Defining Sport (DLD July 11)


The Call for Abstracts for Defining Sport book proposal is approaching. The deadline is July 11, 2014.

The focus of the book is to bring new scholarly attention to the issues and questions involved in defining and explaining the nature of sport. There are several classic works that treat these issues, but with the growth of the philosophy of sport a renewed focus on how to define and conceptualize sport is needed.

The original call is here: http://sportsethicist.com/2014/05/15/call-for-papers-defining-sport/

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Unionizing College Sports?

The following is a guest post from Brandon Johnson, a graduate student in Exercise and Sport Science at Eastern Kentucky University:

Nearly everyone agrees that a worker deserves a fair and suitable workplace environment. Yet, a less congenial notion within college athletics is who is deemed an employee. For years, student-athletes at the collegiate level were just that: student-athletes. Their schedules were crammed with coursework, meetings and practices. Such student-athletes gave their time, blood, sweat and tears in return for a college degree. Rarely thought to be employees, student-athletes represented their school in competition day in and day out. However, increases in technology and media coverage have led to a grand restructuring of the collegiate athletic model. Bowl Championship Series (BCS) games and March Madness have created a multi-billion dollar industry.

And now, student-athletes want their share.

A recent ruling by the National Labor Union declared members of the Northwestern University football team to be employees, therefore granting the right to unionize in pursuit of additional compensation. Considerable interest has been placed on the rights to better medical coverage, improved concussion testing and four-year scholarships, all in addition to receiving direct monetary compensation as an employee.

This issue needs to be addressed, but these student-athletes do not come out empty-handed as many are suggesting. Student-athletes have an opportunity to earn a college degree. Granted, the value of such is a bit tainted with the restriction on scholarships, as many student-athletes end up having to foot the bill for some of their education. Assuredly, there are financial struggles for student-athletes. However, the average college graduate in the United States, according to US News, owes nearly $30,000 for their education. I would be hard-pressed to think a graduate from some of the top tier programs owe a dime for the education.

Student-athletes provide a service to their schools through their athletic abilities. Very few collegiate athletic programs see a profit—herein lay the problem. The NCAA reports that only 14 of the 120 Division I FBS schools profited in 2012—Northwestern was not listed in the 14. That does not sound like the ideal business model—more expenses than revenue. Perhaps an argument could be made for the student-athletes at the schools that generate profit. But even then, student-athletes in these programs cannot be paid. Even without Title IX, there is no plausible way to do so. Not every starting quarterback deserves the same pay. Walk-ons and partial scholarship recipients create another issue. The glitches are endless.

There is simply no impartial way to pay student-athletes, both male and female equitably as required by Title IX. Besides, if Division I athletes claim they deserve payment the same can be said for the other levels of NCAA competition. Lower division NCAA affiliates have student-athletes too—and those athletic programs do not make money.

Clearly, without these student-athletes, there would be no March Madness. And, in many cases, eliminating athletic programs could cause a severe effect. And without these student-athletes, there would not be corporate executives lining their pockets thanks to inflated endorsement deals.
But on this premise, a minimum-wage employee’s, at McDonalds, for example, demand for a higher salary would be justified. After all, they are the ones creating the product which generates billions of dollars in revenue.

It is not fair. Welcome to the workforce. 

The model is not perfect. It is an unfortunate sight to see these student-athletes post-playing days. These student-athletes put their bodies on the line for their scholarships and things certainly need to be changed, but paying student-athletes is not the answer. Such a drastic change could have harsher impacts than perhaps what is being considered. Bear in mind, for instance, the impact on youth football programs around the country. Young athletes face endless pressures from coaches and parents to excel on the playing field. The allure of the scholarship and the enlarged professional salaries have obstructed the reality of the possibility and soiled the principle of youth sports as a whole—to have fun. The last thing we need is to add to the pressures. Doing so would likely lead to the end of youth football as we know it.