2018 MLB Draft Guide: The Cry of Collusion
The word 'collusion' gets thrown around an awful lot in fantasy sports, especially leagues with some sort of a cash prize. Michael Stein takes a deep dive into the accusations and helps you to understand when the C-word should and shouldn't be used.
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 collusion in a fantasy sports league absent any written proof or a confession. 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 so outraged at the inequity of a trade that you have 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. Think of collusion like an onion - it has many layers and it can make you cry.
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. 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. The Court evaluates collusion on a case-by-case basis taking into account all relevant factors when weighing the evidence.
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. As such, 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 90% of the time 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.
This exercise 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 due to the severity of the allegations, much like a motion for summary judgment in civil court. The burden is on the party making the accusations to present sufficient evidence and testimony in support of their grievances.
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. Do not be mistaken because there is a myriad of other ways people can collude in a fantasy baseball league. Some examples include manipulating the waiver wire to control who has the higher priority pick, intentionally adding and dropping players so they go on waivers to prevent someone else from acquiring them, or setting a deficient or illegal lineup in order to effect the outcome of a matchup.
For the purposes of this article, we are going to focus on the potentially collusive element of making trades. Most people will have a subjective opinion on the value and merits of a trade made by other league members. While everyone is entitled to their own opinion, we must remember that there is a distinction between a bad trade and an illegal trade. Not all bad trades are collusive so keep that in mind before asserting allegations against others.
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. Generally, league members have their own agenda and will only evaluate a trade to see how it could affect their own team rather than objectively evaluating the merits of a deal. Not everyone is that selfish, but it could create 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.
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. 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. 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 both General Managers 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. 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.
Another distinction that must be made is whether your league is Rotisserie or points-based. In Roto leagues, there are an infinite 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. Sometimes they will need to prioritize home runs over stolen bases, and vice versa. That is why trading Billy Hamilton in exchange for Nelson Cruz 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. Personal relationships become an issue 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. 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.
It has been argued that the proximity and frequency of communications amongst family members or close friends supports allegations of collusion. However, this argument lacks merit in a vacuum. Family members (most likely, 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 actual collusive behavior stemming from those communications. 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. 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 inferences of collusion because GMs are not under any obligation to find alternative trading partners if they feel they are obtaining the best deal according to their own evaluation.
Fulfilling a Need
Another element of evaluating the fairness of a trade 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. When players at different positions are traded for each other, it is most likely due to each GMs specific individual needs. 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. This should not raise any red flags unless there is a grotesque disparity between the quality of the players being exchanged at different positions.
There is no black and white conclusion to draw without having hard evidence or proof of collusion. Accusing others of colluding is a serious allegation and should not be asserted lightly. It raises questions about people’s morals and the overall integrity of the league itself. Just because a trade looks uneven or creates skepticism about other GMs’ patterns of behavior does not, in and of itself, mean there is collusion. However, if you sense that there is an agreement amongst other GMs to manipulate the rules or undermine the integrity of the league, then you should present your argument to the commissioner and provide some form of credible evidence to support the claim. There is little else that can destroy a fantasy baseball quite like collusion, but the same destructive results can also occur with McCarthy-esque witch hunts and careless allegations made without merit. Not all trades are fair or equal, but that does not necessarily mean they were consummated through an act of collusion.