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Week 8

In last week’s column, I shared Don’s question about apathy in FF leagues. Don caught me off guard by contending that apathy is something that he depends upon in order to make the playoffs each year.

I heard from many readers about strategies to prevent apathy from paralyzing owners who get off to a poor start, but I want to begin with the responses that speak to my larger question about whether there is good reason for commissioners to accept apathy as a necessary evil in their leagues.

Kim and Craig wrote in with the most comprehensive responses to that question. Let’s start by reviewing what Kim had to say:

I was really surprised that there's someone out there like Don who actually wants apathy to exist in his league. It [isn’t] more fun to play against teams that aren't even paying attention. It's like playing in a rigged game where you know you're going to win. What fun is that? [What kind of adult likes] to play competitive sports against children? It seems so foreign to me to look forward to getting into the playoffs year after year because there's so much apathy in your league. It kind of takes the prestige out of it, doesn't it? That would be reason enough for me, but I think there are a couple more.

In a hobby where many, many rules are put into place to try level the playing field and keep things as fair as possible, [measures taken by commissioners to avoid apathy are simply] another effort to achieve those ends. If there's an owner in a league who starts "phoning it in" as the season progresses, it's a big advantage to play that owner late in the season—as your chances of winning are greatly increased when he may not be paying attention to byes, isn't making waiver wire pickups and may not even be updating his roster weekly. Conversely, if you play that owner early, it's a disadvantage because the owner is far more likely to pull out all of the stops to get a win. You might say, "There are always going to be better and worse times to play a team because of injuries or byes" but those things are not controllable. I don't think you can equate owner apathy with those things. One is preventable, and the others are not. It's easy to see how this impacts teams getting into the playoffs when one win can often mean the difference between playing on and sitting out of the playoffs—and it will most definitely impact seeding or byes (if your league has them) in the playoffs.

I think there's another reason that concerns trades. By allowing owners to be apathetic, you run the risk of unfair trades (it depends how your league handles these as to whether this is a big issue for you) or not being able to even consider a trade with that owner at all because they won’t even respond to trade offers (since they have given up on the season). It's not as big a concern as the first problem but trading is a fun part of fantasy football, so anything that creates unfairness (there's that concept again) and/or lessens your opportunities to do it - should be curtailed if possible.

Our league takes a number of steps to keep people interested all year, and we haven't had a problem for more than 5 years at least in part because these steps are effective. The first is we run a Toilet Bowl playoff in which all the teams that didn't make the regular playoff compete— with the winner getting half their entry fee back. The second is we have a season-long contest in which the team with the highest one-week score and highest losing one-week score get a monetary prize. It's a portion of the waiver fees and isn't much, but our league likes it. Lastly, we have a Week 17 contest (our championship games are played in Week 16) in which all teams compete for the remainder of the waiver wire fees. The amount is usually about the equal to the team's entry fee. Each owner puts in a starting lineup, and the highest score for the week takes the pot. Of course, teams can add and drop players so it gives rise to star players who will sit the final week of the season being dropped. At any rate, each of these things helps keep the owners active throughout the season. Most of all, it's just fun to have these extra prizes out there.

The strategies that Kim outlines in that last paragraph for keeping people interested are likely to be useful in most leagues, but I think the most important part of this response is the “fairness” argument in the opening paragraphs. Apathy can create an unlevel playing field in FF, and most leagues are indeed built on the principle that the playing field should be kept as level as possible. Craig also engages the question from a philosophical perspective:

I believe the answer [to the question of whether leagues should take measures to prevent apathy] should always be a resounding yes! Before I cover options on how to do this I’ll explain a few reasons why.

1) A common complaint probably comes from the following example with owners A, B and C. A played C early in the season and lost, but then went on to be in contention for the last playoff spot (or last payout spot in a non-playoff league). B is his main competition for that spot and happens to play C his last game. C was knocked out a few weeks ago and just gave up, not even bothering to change his lineup in response to player injuries and/or bye weeks. This gives B the easy win and bumps A for the spot winning the last payout spot, or the final playoff spot.

I’ve seen the example above in leagues in which multiple owners got screwed not because of bad games by their players, but by an owner who basically gave their opponents a free victory. Now it would be nice to say that this is all for fun, but when money is involved, this can turn ugly real fast.

2) I’ve seen multiple leagues in which there is a disparity between the number of games played against other owners. I know in a rigorously structured league this can somehow be avoided, but I have been in leagues in which you play some people twice and one or two owners only once (2 divisions of 5), or you will play all but 1-2 owners (16 owners, 15 games), and it stinks when some people have guaranteed wins, again making the playoffs or top spots.

These 2 situations results in at least 1 upset player—possibly more. [The imbalance that results from apathy might even] cause them not to return the next year because it could happen again. If incentives keep people from getting actually upset at each other, and keep the league from falling apart, then why not add them?

3) Spirit of the game. If you’re the type of person who wants Fantasy Football to mirror real football a little more closely, than does it make sense for a team to ‘forget’ to play with a QB, WR or Def? Or to force their star player to play even though he’s broken both legs and can’t do anything other than cheer, crawl around, and get killed by opposing defenses?

Would any team in the NFL just give up and not even try? They might put in backups to gain experience and not risk injuries, but they will try their hardest to win.

I wouldn’t be surprised if you get a few e-mails saying incentives are bad, and quoting “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” saying how the few complainers should be not be appeased because they are that (few in numbers).

The way I see it, the “needs of the many” in this scenario include fun and fairness (everybody wants to have fun, and everybody wants it to be fair for themselves at least). This far outweighs the “needs of the few” which would be the need to not have incentives (probably from the one guy who has benefited the most from these absentee owners in the past).

A couple good incentives:

  • Weekly payouts/awards (most online services have ribbon/trophy options for this) for high score or other scoring feats (2nd highest weekly score but still lose). Everybody loves to win something.

  • Go to a keeper league. Owners may be out of contention but if they could pick up a waiver or trade late in the season they could freeze or keep for next year than they might actually still pay attention to what’s going on and see if they can make a deal…and doing so would at least make sure their roster is ok to go.

  • Have a loser bracket playoffs. Those who don’t make the playoffs have their own postseason for a different trophy (the Garbage cup).

  • I’ve always liked “upset” payouts. Losing teams taking out top teams. Similarly you can have probably have some sort of “hired gun” payout for losing teams to take out some borderline playoff/payout spots.

Like Kim, Craig wraps up his response with specific suggestions for curtailing apathy. Before he gets to those particulars, however, he does a fine job of explaining why he sees apathy as a problem (rather than a stubborn fact of existence).

Fun and fairness are important considerations for Kim and Craig, but Dan makes an excellent point about the fact that what looks like apathy can really just be collusion in disguise:

I think leagues should take measures to ensure participation by owners who become too apathetic about their teams to bother making changes to their lineups. Otherwise, what would be the difference in collusion between team owners with making suspect trades and a team not starting active players? To me it’s the same. In the NFL and now FFB, there’s more parity than ever, I think especially now with the multitude of information available online and guys like Don who count on owners to be apathetic towards the end of the season, the rest of us have to work harder on their teams, and use our innate skills to make great trades early on in the season, or even draft that much better!

There are a few options to ‘encourage’ active ownership in addition to the one you already mentioned (the weekly high score pay out). I know of some leagues with penalties for doing poorly, and frankly I don’t think that really works fairly within most fantasy football leagues. After saying that though, I do like the idea of having end-of-year penalties for teams. Last place buys food & beverages for next year’s draft, or for online only leagues, the last place team gets a new logo and team name for next year voted on by the league or assigned by the winner.

My favorite options to combat apathetic or forgetful owners are to have backups for each skilled position. In my current league, even though we use an online service, we can email our opponent and commish any backup options for the week for whatever players might be in jeopardy of not playing. On top of that, I suggest auto backups for all player positions, in order of how the online site has them listed or by the order of which you last used backups. So if Johnny Apathy still has McNabb starting this week, then he will automatically get the score from his backup QB, or if Businessman Bob set his lineup with Willie Parker and left this weekend on business and FWP doesn’t start, then he automatically gets his first active backup RB score. This system helps the busy and unfortunate, and forces the hand of the apathetic owner, which overall keeps the integrity and fairness of the league intact.

Brad’s league appears to have a zero tolerance policy for apathy, but his response makes it clear that the commissioner’s mindset on this issue may have just as much to do with owners staying involved as any system of policies and penalties:

Apathy in our 15-year-old league is not acceptable. There's a fine for every bye-week player you put in your starting lineup, even if you intentionally do so. I think there's also a fine for playing any IR player who has been on the IR for more than one week.

The issue in our league isn't about the active owners getting easy weeks. We're a 12-team total points league with bonus points for H2H wins using all 17 weeks to decide a winner (we don't do playoffs during the regular season). This results in an unbalanced schedule. Apathetic owners, especially at the end of the season, will usually give someone an unfair edge due to the luck of scheduling. And the few bonus points for wins have decided final standings in the past. It's not right for 2 competitive teams, close in the rankings, to have games where one opposing owner cares and the other doesn't. The situation may not be reversed before the end of the season.

Our league prefers honest competition, so the 3-12 guys who are 400 points back going into week 16 are expected to try their hardest. It's OK if they don't burn up the waiver wire; but they ARE expected to set their lineups to the best of their ability and that means NO bye week players and no IR players. We've never kicked anyone out of our league for apathy, though owners have come and gone through their own volition. I doubt this year will be any different since everyone is still trying.

Our commissioner is rabid about owners fielding active players. And he's religious about fining teams for apathy. Those guys pay up, too. Outside of that, what else can we do?

I didn’t hear from anyone who saw things precisely from Don’s perspective, but Phil made the point that leagues shouldn’t go crazy about eradicating apathy. He came closer than anyone to conceding that some degree of apathy is close to inevitable in fantasy football:

In our set-up we offer weekly payouts to the high point man for the week. It keeps most people interested until the end of the season. This seems to have solved the problem for the most part. Invariably there are still one or two guys who mail it in at the half way point because their draft day juggernaut has turned into a mid-season nightmare. Across the board, it is better to have good players in your league and let the chips fall where they may. It enhances the challenge and requires each manager to go beyond just checking out the yahoo rankings. Having said that, we’re not talking about a ton of dough exchanging hands. So if the stakes were higher, I might be writing a different email.

A different Don than the one who prompted last week’s question wrote in with a useful and detailed report of how his league has tried to combat apathy:

In response to your question about apathetic owners, I will quickly review with you the evolution of our league’s rule regarding last place finishers. I have been playing Fantasy Football (ff) for almost 20 years and running a league for the last 8 seasons. We experienced the same growing pains [you mentioned last week]. Teams that had losing records frequently lost interest. We tried penalizing them for illegal lineups and ended up losing owners instead. Over the last couple of years we tried a new approach. The winner of our league gets the comfy chair (that's right we still do a live draft) and a heaping stack of twenty dollar bills in front of him. The loser (or lowest point scorer) was responsible for providing the beverages for the event. Nice theory, but difficult to enforce, as most owners felt sympathy and brought their own beverages anyway, the previous season mostly forgotten. So we took it to the next level. The low point scorer from each division must pay the regular season high point scorer $50 each at the next draft. That gets us an extra payout for another category, and keeps everyone actively maintaining their lineup, even trading to improve their team. Our entry fee is $155, so the extra $50 really stings on draft day. It has worked great so far, especially for those teams that actually had to pay as they are even more determined to win or at the very least stay out of the cellar.

I bolded the most important part of Don’s response because it rings true for many of the leagues that I have come to know over the years. In some leagues, forcing the loser to buy the keg for the draft party works like a charm. In other leagues, it just means that everyone ends up drinking cheap beer. In the latter case, some people don’t even blame the last place person for their indigestion because he has a really compelling story about why it isn’t his fault that he came in last. There are plenty of leagues in which specific fines (like the one Don details) are more appropriate than open-ended assignments to provide food or drink, etc. Tom wrote in about a specific fine that the league (and the commissioner) don’t even have to keep track of, as it is on the winner to collect from the last-place finisher:

The league I run has a $15.00 "loser" fee for the last place finish. The last 2 placed teams play in a Toilet Bowl at the end of the year and the loser of that game is expected to pay the league winner this loser fee. It's a small amount of money that is akin to minor bar bet. It adds to the "shame" of coming in last and keeps people interested all year so it creates a fairer league.

Since it is a small amount of money and the loser is expected to pay the winner directly, the commissioner is not really bothered with collecting and distributing this at the end of the year. No one is even too concerned if, perhaps, it never gets paid. As with a small bar bet, the winner will just badger the loser to buy him a few beers the next time they are together.

Clearly Don and Tom are the products of leagues with very different cultures. If you are a commissioner who is trying to formulate a policy to combat apathy, don’t just pick something mentioned in this column. Think carefully about what kind of league you are running (not the kind of league you wish you were running or the kind of league that people write about, but the kind of league you are really already a part of). And don’t forget that leagues with fairly defined cultures of their own encounter anomalous behavioral patterns from owners. Glenn wrote in to point out that sometimes what we think of as apathy is a product of genuine distress on an owner’s part. In these cases, it is often less productive to institute a penalty than it is to have the commissioner step in:

The way our league is set up, it is important for all teams to play competitively until the end of the season. If an owner gives up it throws off who gets into the playoffs, etc.

To get non-competitive owners involved, approximately half our payouts go to side pots based upon regular season performance. For example, each game won pays, highest score for the week pays, highest point total for the year pays, and biggest blow out pays.

We have never had a problem with owners rolling over until last year. In that case one of the owners was in last place, and during the last few weeks of the season, he went through a divorce and lost access to a computer and his cell phone. So as Commish I put in a lineup based upon our websites recommended starting lineup. It was important because he was matched up against the two top teams the last two weeks. If he simply rolled over, then the other owners would have been cheated out of a fair competition.

Bill reiterates Glenn’s point:

As commissioner, it is my responsibility to make sure all starting lineups are completed prior to the first kick-off on Sunday morning. What that means is, if one of the owners has a player that's on a BYE or is OUT in his starting lineup, I remove that player and replace him with the lowest rated player on that owner's roster for that position. This at least insures that all players in all starting lineups will at least be playing.

Philip is concerned about the different forms that apathy takes:

I've seen apathy take several forms these past few years:

1. Active to begin with but has a losing record early... so gives up early
2. Passive to begin with but towards the end tries hard to make a playoff push
3. Waits until each Saturday evening or Sunday morning to make any moves/changes

I'll focus on #3 above because currently it drives members of my league crazy! This person waits until all other members make their moves (waiver/free agent claims) so he ends up with the consensus worst moves. This does not feel fair (head-to-head league) and causes resentment to the point of people wanting to kick our friend out. Awkward!

Philip isn’t the only reader who is willing to consider booting an owner from a league because of general dissatisfaction with that owner’s style. Anthony wrote in with his own version of Craig’s scenario involving owners A, B, and C. His solution to the problem is simple: If owner B is too apathetic to play as hard against owner C as he did against owner A, then “don't let Owner B in the league next year.” Which brings us to . .

This Week’s Question

What is the best process for expelling “undesirables” from your league?

On the spectrum of social organizations, most fantasy leagues probably fall somewhere between fraternities and accounting offices. Leagues are fun and self-selecting clubs, but they also have to create whole sets of policies and enforcement procedures relating to the collection and redistribution of funds. Occasionally people who are looking for a keg party with some talk about football end up surrounded by people with calculators and legal pads. Alternatively, it sometimes happens that a guy joins a fantasy football league because he expects to spend all day every Sunday phoning and texting his fellow owners with messages about his prowess as an evaluator of talent—only to discover that six of the people in the league don’t care a jot about football (and only joined to score points with their boss, who is the commish).

Most leagues have healthy and fairly balanced social dynamics, but occasionally people end up in situations like the one outlined by Philip. There are one or two people in the league who aren’t breaking any rules. They pay their dues, participate in the draft, and submit their lineups according to establish league procedures. But they either take football far more or far less seriously than everyone else in the league. Their expectations are so out of whack with everyone else’s that they actually make participation in the league more of a chore than a joy, so they are thrown out.

It sounds fine in theory. After all, the league will be better off without them—and they will certainly be better off in another league.

It also works fine in practice under certain circumstances. One league that I participated in for years allowed me to draft online for a long time after I moved away from the rest of the participants. But over the years, it became less and less fun for them to make special accommodations for one guy to draft via computer when everyone else showed up face to face for a live draft. The commissioner asked me if I would consider withdrawing from the league, and I was happy to do so. I genuinely had no idea that my drafting remotely was such a sore spot with some of the participants, and I’m glad the commissioner felt that he knew me well enough to tell me how unhappy the league was with our internet arrangement.

But not every commissioner can afford to be that frank with a person who just isn’t living up to unstated league expectations. Sometimes commissioners think that owner A is a pain in everyone’s butt—when in reality he is only a headache for the commissioner. Sometimes it’s just really awkward to ask a guy who has been in your league for 6 years to bow out because you see him every day at work and you like him fine . . . except for the way he conducts himself in your league. Sometimes it isn’t clear that you want a guy out of your league because of the way he handles himself as a fantasy owner. If you’ve tried to tell a guy that you are throwing him out of your league because he doesn’t pay attention to bye weeks, and his response is, “Are you sure this has nothing to do with that hunting accident we had last week? I told you I thought the safety was on,” then you know that the lines between fantasy camaraderie and real life relationships can get blurry.

The simple fact of the matter is that it’s a lot easier to talk about throwing people out of a league than it is to look them in the eye and say, “You are no longer welcome here because _______.”

Is it always as simple as being open and direct, or are there other strategies that commissioners have found particularly useful for throwing their wife’s boss out of a league without worrying about whether she will have trouble getting a raise this year?

Last Man Standing (Courtesy of Marc Mondry)

This week I have picked 3 teams that I have not selected yet as an option in a LMS pool. It’s not that the NFL has drastically changed in one week, but these teams have great matchups in Week 8—and are probably just good enough to make for fairly safe bets. In the end, to win, you have to pick 17 teams, and this is a great week to pick one of your weaker options. Just know that none of these teams is a sure thing, and if it’s not your style to take risks this early, you may want to go in another direction.

Trap Game: Tampa Bay over Dallas
This isn’t exactly a revolutionary upset pick, but given my lackluster trap game picks for the last couple of weeks, I figured it was time to get one right. Dallas has looked flat out awful two games in a row, and with the news already out that Romo will sit against Tampa Bay, it’s pretty surprising to me that the Bucs aren’t the favorite going into this game (Dallas is favored by 3.5). The Buccanner defense has been pretty stellar this season, allowing only 15.3 points per game, and Brad Johnson is unlikely to be the one to challenge them – as backup Seneca Wallace only managed 73 passing yards passing last week. Dallas will have to put up a bunch of points (an unlikely scenario) to win, given that the Dallas D has given up an average of 25 points per game, and let Steven Jackson and the Rams steamroll them for 34 points. The Bucs could embarrass the ‘Boys this coming Sunday.

3. Baltimore over Oakland
Honestly, I do not really know what to expect from this game—except that Baltimore should win it handily. Oakland’s only real offensive weapon is its running game, and facing Baltimore’s league-leading run defense (allowing 67 yards per game) isn’t an exciting prospect. The reason I don’t recommend Baltimore more strongly is that I am skeptical about the Ravens’ ability to put points on the board themselves. They did, however, put up 27 points last week, and Joe Flacco didn’t throw a pick, so there are signs of life. There are no guarantees in football, and Baltimore winning is far from a certainty, but given this analysis, and the fact that Oakland is travelling from coast to coast to play at MT&T Bank Stadium makes me confident that Baltimore should win this one, albeit perhaps by a small margin.

2. San Francisco over Seattle
For just about the last half decade, picking San Francisco over Seattle was both a bad joke and a very easy way to get eliminated from your LMS competition. This year, however, Seattle might be the saddest excuse for an NFL football team (though Detroit and Cincinnati are in the running). To be fair, the Seahawks have been devastated by injuries all over the place, but that only makes them easier to pick against in a LMS competition. This one will be played in San Fran, and even though these two played a very close game early in the season, the Niners have only improved since then, and the Hawks seem to have gone in the other direction. They are dead last in the league in passing yards per game, and allow opposing teams to put up an average of 28.5 points per game. San Francisco should come close to that number this week, and I would be shocked if Seattle topped 20 points, even against the Niners, given they haven’t put up more than 17 since week 3, when Julius Jones went off against the then awful Rams.

1. New York Jets over Kansas City
The Jets are number 1!? Yep, you read it correctly—even after a sad loss to the Raiders last week. Let me make one thing clear: I have absolutely zero confidence in the Jets’ ability to keep Kansas City out of the end zone; however, I have even less confidence (is that possible) that Kansas City will hold Favre and Co. to under 30 points, particularly with Thomas Jones remembering how to run the ball again (159 yards on 24 carries last week). We also can’t forget that the Jets may very well have added motivation in this game, given Herm Edwards will be looking back at them from across the field. Herm may have that same desire to win, but who on that team is willing to play for him? Look for the Jets to absolutely take it to the Chiefs this week, making up for last Sunday’s debacle.

For responses to this week's fantasy question please email me no later than 10 a.m. EST on Wednesdays during the football season.