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Conditional Trades in Fantasy Football

If you are reading this column, then you probably take fantasy football too seriously. That’s not a criticism—just an observation. There are lots of us who take FF too seriously. Sometimes we take it so seriously that we cannot discuss it without becoming shrill, strident, and perhaps a bit violent.

In the years that I have been writing my Q&A column for FFToday, trading has emerged as the single topic most likely to spark a shouting and/or wrestling match. Most leagues approve or veto trades by voting or relying on a commissioner’s ruling, but there are endless variations on both of these models (as well as mystifyingly complex alternatives).

Based on my correspondence with hundreds (thousands?) of participants in all sorts of leagues, it is clear to me that the contentiousness of trading has more to do with the people involved in a league than with the structure that governs trading within that league. Most commissioners who rule on trades do a commendable job of remaining impartial and objective. Even so, I have heard from plenty of FFers who would never consider participating in a league in which a single person could block a proposed trade. I have also heard from FFers who report that trades approved by a vote are nightmarish because as soon as one player pulls away from his competitors, the other members of the league vote down every trade he attempts to make.

Virtually all readers will agree that collusion is the only reason to block a trade, but most of us know at least one FFer who cries “collusion” every time he reviews a trade that he has not proposed himself. We all have different thresholds of suspicion when it comes to collusion, so it really does us little good to tell a commissioner or a voting community that suspicion of collusion is the only reason to deny a trade. After all, it is just as easy for any of us to say, “That looks like collusion,” as it is for any two potential trading partners to say, “We aren’t colluding!”

The unpredictability of the future makes all claims of collusion defensible. When people get bent out of shape over other people’s trades, it is usually because there are two distinct sets of expectations concerning the players involved. In an NFL world that involves suspensions for personal conduct, jail time for sponsoring dog fights, and missing games or portions of games for the birth of children (I have Shaun Alexander in mind for those who don’t recall), it is impossible to say which player will be more valuable than another on any given Sunday. There have been Sundays when I was better off with Keenan McCardell, David Patten, and Ricky Proehl than I would have been with Terrell Owens, Steve Smith, and Chad Johnson. We can all trot out similar examples from our experience, which is precisely why most of us gravitate towards a laissez-faire attitude on trades.

But however dedicated we may be to laissez-faire principles, most of us would object to a proposed swap of LaDainian Tomlinson for Barry Sanders. The traders could point out that we don’t know that Sanders will stay retired any more than we know that Tomlinson won’t decide in August that he needs to pull a Charles V and retire to the monastery at Juste.

“Only time will tell,” the traders could argue.

And that is just the reason for us to explore conditional trades in fantasy football. Time invariably does tell. If we are worried that owner A isn’t giving owner B enough compensation for a player, then a conditional draft pick enables us to build a sweetener into the deal if the player does in fact live up to our expectations.

Brett Favre

Conditional trades can help avoid collusion in your league.

Since no one knows right now whether Brett Favre will come out of retirement for the 2008 season or not, let’s use Favre as an example. Imagine twelve guys who like to drink together and meet in Vegas every March to watch the March Madness basketball games AND have their fantasy football draft. In their 16-round draft, the guy who picked last (call him Al) took Favre because, as he put it, “you never know.” Now that everyone has read Peter King’s article on Favre’s possible return, one of his league buddies (call him Bert) is proposing a trade of Drew Brees for Brett Favre.

There’s an awful lot of uncertainty concerning Favre right now, but if he returns, it’s conceivable that he could end up on an offense that would make him more productive than Brees. Bert could therefore offer Brees to Al in exchange for Favre with the following conditions:
  1. if Favre remains retired, Bert will get Al’s 3rd-round pick in exchange for Bert’s 16th-round pick next year;

  2. if Favre plays for the Packers, Bert gets nothing from Al next year regardless of how Favre performs;

  3. if Favre plays for any team other than the Packers and finishes as a top 8 QB, Bert gets nothing from Al next year;

  4. if Favre plays for any team other than the Packers and finishes as the 9th to 16th-ranked QB at the end of the season, Bert will get Al’s 6th-round pick in exchange for Bert’s 16th-round pick next year;

  5. if Favre plays for any team other than the Packers and finishes as the 17th to 32nd-ranked QB at the end of the season, Bert will get Al’s 5th-round pick in exchange for Bert’s 16th-round pick next year; and

  6. if Favre plays for any team other than the Packers and somehow finishes the season ranked 33rd (or lower), then Bert will get Al’s 4th-round pick in exchange for Bert’s 16th-round pick next year.

Some FFers would have no objections to a conditional offer such as this, but many would object for various reasons. Non-keeper leagues in particular might be reluctant to allow conditional trades--since the folks involved in the trade might not be around the following year.

Imagine that Bert leaves the league with Al owing him a 6th-round pick. Does the new owner who inherits Bert’s slot get the pick? Even worse, imagine that Al leaves the league owing Bert a 3rd-round pick. How easy will it be to recruit a new person to join the league? “You’ll need to write me a $100 check, be at the draft next Saturday night, and be a good sport about the fact that you don’t have a pick in the third round, ok?”

The potential headaches involved with conditional picks could easily outweigh the fact that such picks do indeed allow time to tell. If your league has had any experience with conditional trades, I would like to hear from you. If you have strong opinions (and hypothetical examples to support those opinions) concerning conditional trades, I would like to hear from you. My hope is to collect enough responses by September for a column that thoroughly examines conditional trades near the beginning of the season.