Fantasy Baseball Exposé: When Do You Know if it is Collusion?

If you participate in a fantasy baseball league, then there is a very good chance you have been flabbergasted about a trade made between other league members. You may have been outraged at the inequity of a trade. You may have had no doubts the two trading partners are involved in some nefarious scheme. But before you start jumping to conclusions about whether there is any collusion taking place, you need to first understand what collusion means and also what it does not mean.

The Supreme Court of Fantasy Judgment advocates for fantasy GMs to be able to manage their teams freely and according to their own preferences. Whether they have paid an entry fee or not, GMs should have the freedom to make their own decisions in the management of their team so long as they do not compromise the integrity of the league (e.g., entering into collusive agreements with other GMs). The Court defines collusion as a secret agreement or conspiracy for fraudulent or treacherous purposes.(1) Like many acts of treachery, collusion can take shape in many forms. Collusion can also have various levels of offense in terms of what the participating parties are trying to accomplish. But in the end, they all undermine the integrity of a league and need to be decisively addressed.

Most people are smart enough not to put their Machiavellian dealings in writing. Further, most people who engage in this type of activity do not have enough self-respect to admit to their deceptive actions. So it is extremely rare to have conclusive proof that collusive activity has taken place. Then how does anyone know for sure whether there is any collusion amongst league members? That is one of the most difficult questions to answer and it is a primary reason why leagues seek third party assistance in resolving disputes about alleged collusion.

For the purposes of this article, we are going to operate under the assumption that there is no definitive proof that teams are colluding in a league. The reason for this is because at least nine out of ten times there will not be any way to prove that there is an agreement in place between GMs. This means that we would have to rely on circumstantial evidence and weigh the totality of the circumstances in order to determine whether collusion was involved.(2)

This exercise (and the linked, numbered cases) will provide guidance to commissioners and league GMs on how to investigate and evaluate potential collusive behavior. When the Court is presented with a case involving allegations of collusion, we must look at the evidence in the light most favorable to the accused. The burden is on the party making the accusations to present sufficient evidence and testimony in support of their allegations.(3)

The most common form of collusive behavior is an unbalanced and inequitable trade made between two league members. This is most common because it is the easiest and most direct way to impact the overall performance of the teams involved. But don’t be mistaken… there are other ways for GMs to collude with one another, albeit they are not as common and are more difficult to pass off as innocent.(4)(5) But for the purposes of this article, we are going to focus on the potentially collusive element of making trades.

Deal or No Deal?

Leagues typically handle trades in three different ways: 1) commissioner approves all trades; 2) league vote to approve or reject trades; or 3) all trades automatically go through without needing approval. There are flaws with all three. However, the Court has consistently expressed its position on this subject as we abhor the league vote method for approving trades.(6) Generally, league members have their own agenda and will only evaluate a trade to see how it could affect their own team rather than evaluating the merits of a deal objectively. Of course not everyone does that, but it creates a slippery slope for people to reject otherwise fair trades simply because they don’t want someone else improving their team.

So how would collusion manifest itself in a trade between two teams? Team A could be contending for a playoff berth and needs a player or two to give them the added boost to secure a spot in the league’s postseason. Team B is clearly out of playoff contention and has no chance at winning any prize money. Team A offers a trade that clearly benefits him and serves no purpose for Team B. But in exchange for making this trade, Team A offers to give Team B a percentage of any winnings he earns. Team B accepts the trade. This is collusion per se because it gives Team B a financial interest in Team A. (7)

Unfortunately, not all acts of collusion in making trades are that easy to spot. If you remove the financial incentives being exchanged, it is still common for people to allege collusion when a trade is just plain lopsided. Lopsided trades can throw off the competitive balance of the league creating a slippery slope for future trades.(8) That is why there must be equitable compensation being exchanged. We will get into how to determine whether compensation is equitable or not later, but for now keep in mind that it is just as important to consider the format and structure of your league before drawing any conclusions about collusion.

Keeper vs. Non-keeper

Trades made in keeper leagues have a completely different analysis than trades made in redraft leagues. This is because teams that concede contending for the playoffs during the present season must make critical roster management decisions on whether to trade off established players in exchange for unknown entities in building for the future.(9) In keeper leagues, there are other factors to consider when evaluating the equitability of a trade besides merely comparing statistics or becoming enamored with name recognition. Some examples include the contract status of a player (referring to how long he may be retained in the league), salary cap implications, positional needs, and future draft picks.

When deals are made between teams at polar opposite ends of the standings, there can be a presumption of collusion simply from interpreting what the GMs respective motivations are in entering into the trade. But in a keeper league, that thought process must be adjusted due to the long-term planning that is required from year to year.

On the other hand, there is no reason to consider any long-term benefits when analyzing a trade in a non-keeper league.(10) This should make logical sense because redraft leagues only account for the current season’s worth of statistical production and players cannot be retained for the following year. That is why it is much easier to discern whether there is any collusive trading in a redraft league because teams that are out of contention will not receive any long-term benefit for acquiring lesser present-day value.

Categorically Speaking

Another distinction that must be made is whether your league is roto or points. In roto leagues, there are a finite number of categories that matter for a player’s performance. In order to succeed, GMs need to ascend the standings in each particular category. They are faced with various strategic decisions when managing their rosters and are free to prioritize which categories they want to pursue improvement in when making trades.(11) Sometimes they will need to prioritize home runs over stolen bases, and vice versa. That is why trading Brett Gardner in exchange for Prince Fielder could theoretically make sense and be deemed equitable depending on which categories need to be improved.

It’s a Family Affair

Blood is thicker than water, except not always in fantasy leagues. But it is a motto that is commonly applied when league members suspect collusion between family members or close friends who have made a questionable trade. It is completely normal that family members, friends, colleagues and close acquaintances would play in a league together. That is one of the reasons why people play fantasy baseball. But do trades made between family members or those with close, personal relationships rise to the level of collusion? Not necessarily. The fact that league members are related or share a close relationship is not demonstrative in and of itself that they are colluding.(12) In order to show that collusion may be present, there would have to be other factors that give rise to a finding of a fraudulent agreement.

One argument that has been made attempting to support allegations of collusion amongst family members or friends is the frequency and proximity of communications between them. This argument does not have much merit. Family members understandably and expectedly communicate with each other more frequently than friends, colleagues, acquaintances, or complete strangers who are also in the same league. That cannot be held against them and they should not be scrutinized more heavily as a result. This direct access to communication could present more opportunities to negotiate deals, but there is nothing inherently wrong with that unless we were able to draw inferences of collusive behavior stemming from those communications.(13) So assuming that the trades made between family members are fair and sensible, no collusion can be found simply because of the frequency and proximity of their communications.

Too Close for Comfort

Taking the previous example to the next level, allegations of collusion are often made against GMs who tend to make trades solely with each other more frequently than anyone else. Perhaps there are two teams that only make trades between themselves and do not make trades with other GMs. When this happens, there could be a presumption that they are in cahoots with each other in some capacity. However, before jumping to that conclusion, there would have to be additional factors present in order to draw an inference of collusion.

GMs are free to trade with whomever they prefer if they feel they are getting the best deal available. Even if other GMs believed that better compensation would have been available from someone else, people are not obligated to shop players around for a more advantageous deal solely to appease skeptical league members.(14) It is important for you to take a step back and look at the trades actually be consummated between these two teams. If they are constantly making fair and equitable trades with each other, then you cannot draw any inferences of collusion because GMs are not under any obligation to find alternative trading partners.(15)

Fulfilling a Need

Part of the evaluation of a trade to determine whether it is fair and equitable is to look at the competing needs of the teams involved. After all, GMs typically trade when they need to improve in a specific area. It is important to consider whether a trade makes sense from both teams’ perspectives based on what their current needs may be.(16) When players at different positions are traded for each other, it is most likely due to specific needs that the GMs have. Ideal trade partners are two teams with depth at different positions that can be used as part of the negotiations. It is a wise strategy to accumulate as much depth as possible at certain positions in order to use such depth as leverage when negotiation trades. Unless there is a grotesque disparity between the quality of the players being exchanged at different positions, this should not raise any red flags on its own.

Conclusion

In 1964, United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart described his threshold test for obscenity as “I know it when I see it.” In many ways, that is how we discern whether there is a form of collusion absent written proof or a confession. It goes beyond simply looking at the quality of the players or other compensation being exchanged in a deal. We have discussed several examples of why unbalanced trades could still pass muster and make logical sense. But remember, collusion can exist in any trade if there was an agreement between the teams for a fraudulent or treacherous purpose. So before you start accusing your fellow league mates of colluding with each other, think about what collusion is and also what it is not.

(1) Steel Curtain vs. Rusty Trombones, 3 F.J. 201 (November 2011)
(2) John Doe vs. Richard Roe, 3 F.J. 197 (October 2011)
(3) Team Zero vs. Samcro Reaper Crew, 3 F.J. 177 (October 2011)
(4) Steel Curtain vs. Rusty Trombones, 3 F.J. 201, 203 (November 2011) (holding that a secret agreement between teams to use the first waiver position as a means to move a player to another team further down the list was collusive because its purpose was to circumvent the established rules).
(5) League Commissioner vs. Carlos Danger, 5 F.J. 270 (November 2013) (holding that multiple league members entering into an agreement to manipulate the waiver wire and excessively bid on free agents for the sole purpose of preventing the commissioner from acquiring a quarterback amounted to collusive activity).
(6) Fixed Ops vs. Desert Cowboys, 5 F.J. 256 (November 2013).
(7) League Commissioner vs. Judges, 3 F.J. 223 (December 2011) (holding that having a financial interest in more than one team is an indicator that collusion may be present).
(8) 4 Ponies vs. Beaver Hunters, 3 F.J. 26 (June 2011).
(9) Winners vs. Seven Shades of Shite, 3 F.J. 97 (July 2011).
(10) Willie McGee’s Beauty Parlor vs. Sizemore Matters, 4 F.J. 29 (April 2012).
(11) Team Sabo vs. 4 Ponies, 5 F.J. 167 (August 2013) (approving a trade where a team higher in the standings traded Mat Latos for Homer Bailey because he needed improvement in the WHIP category despite Bailey having better statistics at the time with wins, ERA and strikeouts).
(12) Jetnuts vs. Joker’s Wild, 2 F.J. 15 (September 2010).
(13) Tiger’s Blood vs. Hulkamaniacs, 3 F.J. 58 (July 2011).
(14) Road Runners vs. Urban Achievers, 3 F.J. 47 (June 2011).
(15) Garbage Pail Kids vs. Alex P. Keaton & Co., 4 F.J. 84 (June 2012).
(16) Cajun Crawdads vs. Carson City Cocks, 1 F.J. 42 (June 2010) (upholding a trade for Jason Bay because of the appellee’s desperate need for a starting outfielder due to the demotion of Cameron Maybin).

Michael A. Stein, Esq. – Chief Justice of Fantasy Judgment (@FantasyJudgment)




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Michael A. Stein, Esq. is the Chief Justice of Fantasy Judgment, the industry's premier dispute resolution service. Fantasy Judgment resolves league conflicts by issuing legal decisions resolving cases fairly and expeditiously.
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kozilla
Member
kozilla
2 years 5 months ago

Just so you know I am linking to this from my fantasy league homepage. I was getting excited for the footnotes as I was reading through. Good stuff.

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