Fantasy Football: Fantasy Judgment Upholds a League's Written Rules
General Zod vs. League Commissioner
ON PETITION FOR WRIT OF CERTIORARI FROM
THE F.B. MEMORIAL FANTASY FOOTBALL LEAGUE
Decided November 8, 2012
Cite as 4 F.J. 303 (November 2012)
A fantasy football league called the F.B. Memorial Fantasy Football League (hereinafter referred to as “FBMFFL”) is hosted on the CBSSports.com (“CBS”) platform. It is a non-keeper league comprised of twelve teams and has been in existence since 2008. These teams compete against each other on a weekly basis during the National Football League (“NFL”) season using the statistics of professional players as a basis for accumulating points in head-to-head competition with opponents to determine which fantasy team won or lost.
In 2008, the FBMFFL’s established an expansive roster policy which allows up to seven (7) players at each position including seven (7) “Flex” players at “RB-WR-TE” in addition to the individual limits at RB, WR, and TE respectively. Under such rules, the maximum number of RB’s permitted is 14 on a 17-player roster. The net effect of this rule was to assign anyone above the seven-player positional limit to a flex spot.
The league has a rolling line-up deadline as follows:
Lineup Policy: Owners may set lineups and change players’ positions from a list of their eligible positions (the “Lineup Policy”).
Lineup Deadline: Lineup deadline is 5 minutes before game time for each player (The “Lineup Deadline”).
During Week 9 of the current season, General Zod acquired two additional RBs giving him total of eight on his roster. This is normally a non-event since one may be assigned into a “RB-WR-TE” slot, thus creating a legal roster. As of Sunday, November 4, 2012, General Zod’s roster still showed that he had eight players listed at RB. At 12:26 PM, the commissioner sent an e-mail to the entire league noting General Zod’s illegal roster. General Zod responded to the commissioner just before the 1:00 PM games were starting stating “I’ll fix it when I get near a computer, no worries.” There was no request for assistance or help, nor was there any explanation for the illegal roster. According to the commissioner, General Zod is a very experienced fantasy player and is proficient in his use of computers and technology.
According to General Zod, he had personal matters to attend to the rest of that day and did not have access to a working computer with Internet access until 11:00 PM. At that time, he switched Branden Bolden (RB-NE) on his bench and on a bye week from “RB” to “RB-WR-TE.” According to the CBS league website, there were no longer any roster errors. General Zod alleges this was permissible under the Lineup Deadline because Bolden, on a bye week, would not lock under CBS’s rules until the final kickoff of the week which was the Monday night game the following day.
Nevertheless, General Zod’s opponent, Beaver Diver, was upset because he assumed that he had won by forfeit. He publicly complained on the league message board after which the league commissioner publicly declared his intention to award a victory to Beaver Diver and strip General Zod of all points because he could not or did not cure the roster defect before the deadline.
By these rules, any team is allowed to freely change a player’s position up until five minutes prior to the start of that player’s game. This includes moving players into and out of the lineup or switching bench players’ roster positions. General Zod claims When pressed on this point, the commissioner cannot answer the question “what deadline did General Zod miss?” and claims that this is an unforeseen oversight of the rules.
The commissioner contends that this was a roster issue and no exception in General Zod’s favor was created merely because there is no formal roster deadline delineated in the rules. Contrastly, General Zod argues that this is a lineup issue and that he properly complied with its requirements.
Despite having a warning on his roster for having eight listed running backs, CBS still awarded General Zod all of his points which led to a victory over Beaver Diver. This occurred despite the following written rule in the league’s CBS settings: “Illegal rosters score zero points in the standings.” Because the commissioner made a decision to override CBS’s scoring, the following league rule should apply:
Any controversy concerning point tallies must be memorialized by a post to the league message board and message (email, fax, phone call, voicemail) to the Commissioner no later than 12 noon each Tuesday following completion of that week’s play. The aggrieved party or his representative must submit clear and convincing evidence that the CBSSportsline scorekeeping was in error. The Commissioner has exclusive authority to weigh such evidence and rule upon it. The Commissioner’s decision can only be overturned if 7 teams or more vote to do so and there is a clear and unmistakable alternative to select. Point scoring / point tally controversies must be resolved PRIOR to the beginning of the following week’s play. Please note that there are several “short” weeks in the NFL schedule.
According to this rule, Beaver Diver was the aggrieved party because he was General Zod’s opponent and went against a team with an alleged illegal roster. Beaver Diver had the burden of proof to demonstrate clear and convincing evidence of some sort of error to warrant overriding CBS’s scoring. Beaver Diver merely contended that General Zod’s team page had an error message indicating his roster was illegal.
General Zod submits this appeal to the Court seeking a reversal of the commissioner’s decision which he argues was arbitrary and capricious because it lacked foundation and support of the written rules of the league.
(1) Should the commissioner’s decision to override CBS and render General Zod’s roster illegal thus causing him to forfeit his Week 9 game be upheld?
The Court strongly advocates for fantasy sports commissioners to have a written set of rules that govern their leagues. See John Doe vs. Fantasy Football League Commissioner, 2 F.J. 21, 22 (October 2010). One of the primary reasons is so that all league members are aware of the rules and have access to them at any time. This provides actual notice of the rules to all members of the league and shifts the burden onto them to comply. Shawn Kemp is My Daddy vs. Fantasy Basketball League Commissioner, 2 F.J. 24, 25 (October 2010). Any questions or challenges to such rules should be addressed as soon as practicable. See Machine vs. Fantasy Football League Commissioner, 2 F.J. 1, 2 (September 2010).
The Court would like to address the harsh penalty of being awarded zero points for having an illegal roster. The commissioner is empowered with the tasks of creating the league’s rules, settings, and guidelines. Bryan LaHair Club For Men vs. League Commissioner, 4 F.J. 26, 28 (April 2012). Commissioners should have a certain amount of authority and autonomy to run and administer their leagues. Flemish USA v. League Commissioner, 2 F.J. 35, 36 (October 2010). The FBMFFL commissioner was certainly within his right to opt for the rule to punish league members who have illegal rosters.
As important as it is to implement and enforce the rules of a league, it is equally as important to understand the theory and rationale that exist behind such rules. See A New Hope vs. On the Juice, 1 F.J. 4, 7 (September 2009). Awarding zero points for an illegal roster is typically used as a deterrent to encourage people to manage their rosters and lineups correctly and competitively. It should not be intended to be used for someone else’s benefit because there is a generally accepted code of conduct within the fantasy sports industry that is premised on good faith and fair dealings within leagues and amongst league members. See John Doe vs. Richard Roe, 3 F.J. 197, 199 (October 2011); Going, Going, Gonzalez vs. Fantasy Baseball League, 1 F.J. 29, 30 (May 2010). At the end of the day, it is every fantasy league owner’s personal responsibility to enter and submit their lineups correctly. See Didn’t Hit Submit vs. Commissioner, 1 F.J. 23, 25 (January 2010).
The record is devoid of any historical examples of when a FBMFFL team received no points due to an illegal roster. Whether it has happened before or not, the Court cannot conclude that the intent of the rule was to give a team a windfall by taking advantage of a technicality.
The first conflict the Court would like to clear up is regarding whether this is a lineup issue or a roster issue. The league’s rules delineate roster limits with the minimum and maximum number of players allowed at each position on a team. Just under the roster limits section of the rules is the statement regarding illegal rosters are awarded zero points. Later on in the rules under the Transactions Settings is the aforementioned Lineup Policy and Lineup Deadline referenced by General Zod. While it is not explicitly defined or written out in further detail, the Court concludes that the Lineup Policy and Lineup Deadline solely apply to the players on the roster who are in a team’s starting lineup for that particular week and whose points will be accumulated in an attempt to defeat an opponent.
The issue in this case centers on Branden Bolden’s positional designation on General Zod’s bench. Bolden was on a bye week and listed as a RB. While the rules permit teams to add bench players to the starting lineup prior to the beginning of their respective games, there was never any reason for General Zod to play Bolden while the Patriots had the week off. The reason General Zod had the warning on his team page was because Bolden, a bench player, had a designation at RB when he should have been a RB-WR-TE. It is true that the Lineup Policy permits league members to change players’ positions from a list of their eligible positions. But the way this is written and where it is placed in the league’s rules indicates that it was intended for players who were in a team’s starting lineup.
This determination is not central to the overall issue and decision in this case. However, the Court feels compelled to state that it agrees that there is an ambiguity that exists in the league rules which should be modified and clarified for the 2013 season.
The problem the Court sees with this case is that the commissioner has trapped himself in the proverbial rabbit hole. He is attempting to do the right thing by strictly enforcing the written language of the rules which state that illegal rosters are awarded zero points. The commissioner is correct that this is a roster issue and not a lineup issue because, as we previously established, Bolden was never a consideration to be in General Zod’s lineup anyway. However, the language of the Lineup Policy is vague enough to interpret that the right to change a player’s position extends throughout the entire roster regardless of whether the player is a starter or on the bench.
The commissioner then dug himself an even deeper hole by first allowing General Zod’s scores to remain until 11:00 PM that night, only to then reverse course when Beaver Diver raised the complaint. While the illegal roster warning had been on General Zod’s team page all day, there is no distinction made by CBS between an illegal roster and an illegal lineup. The same warning message would be provided if a team left a starting position blank while waiting to decide in one of the weekend’s later games. This error message would then be cured by activating a bench player into the starting lineup. The same could be said about changing a player’s position before he is locked out for the week.
Furthermore, the way this situation was handled was in clear violation of the league’s rules. The rules regarding controversies about point tallies contain several elements that we will analyze one by one. Before we do, the Court must address the commissioner’s contention that this is an issue about lineup submissions as opposed to point tallies. The Court agrees that the central issue in this case is about roster and lineup submissions. However, the critical action undertaken in this fact pattern was the commissioner’s removal of all of General Zod’s points. This was a direct action taken by the commissioner to override points awarded to General Zod. As a result, the Court believes that the pertinent provisions of Article III of the FBMFFL’s rules apply.
First, the aggrieved party must submit clear and convincing evidence that the CBSSportsline scorekeeping was in error. In this case, the aggrieved party was Beaver Diver who merely presented the fact that there was an error message on General Zod’s team page. There was no dispute over the actual points that were scored. Rather, Beaver Diver was challenging the simple fact that the game had not been forfeited. Because we already concluded that the illegal roster messages are not specific, we cannot conclude that clear and convincing evidence was presented.
Second, the commissioner has exclusive authority to weigh such evidence and rule upon it. The commissioner acknowledged that the lack of a roster deadline or definition in the rules was an unfortunate oversight. The Court empathizes with the commissioner on this point because fantasy sports league commissioners cannot reasonably foresee every possible issue or situation that can arise during a season. To hold them to such a standard would be unfair. Z Wolves, et al. vs. League Commissioner, 3 F.J. 212, 216 (November 2011). Because the issue at hand was not specifically delineated in the rules and because the aggrieved party provided such minimal compelling evidence, the Court fails to see a rational basis for the commissioner reaching the conclusion he came to.
Finally, the commissioner’s decision can only be overturned if seven teams or more vote to do so and there is a clear and unmistakable alternative to select. The commissioner informed the Court that General Zod has waived his right to the league vote and simply requested to take his appeal to this Court. The commissioner graciously granted this request which is unprecedented in the league and not provided for in the rules.
What we are left with is deciding whether the strict interpretation of an ambiguously written rule outweighs any harm done to a team that was not prejudiced in the least. Under no circumstances was Beaver Diver detrimentally affected by Branden Bolden’s designation as a RB instead of a RB-WR-TE for most of the day on November 4, 2012. Bolden was on his bye week and was never a consideration to play.
On the other hand, the commissioner and the league were aware of the error message on General Zod’s team page that entire day which warned him of an illegal roster. The league rules do specifically call for a team to be awarded zero points for having an illegal roster, which is what the error message said. The commissioner fears that if General Zod is allowed to exploit a technical loophole in the league’s rules, it could create a slippery slope and lead to league-wide chaos.
Where the commissioner’s argument fails is his statement that “it is understood league-wide that the appearance of an illegal roster on the league site at any time during active NFL game play results in just application of the rule” regarding illegal rosters being awarded zero points. (See Respondent’s Brief at Page 10). Even if this is an accurate statement, it is too broad of an extension of the rule as it is written. There are no additional provisions, explanations, scenarios or clarifications in the league rules about how long and when a roster is illegal for the penalty to be applied. If it was understood so well, why wasn’t it written in the rules?
The Court appreciates the commissioner’s honesty that he had no idea an illegal roster error message could be cured in the manner that General Zod did it. While it may be a loophole, General Zod did not break any rules. True, he should have corrected his roster when alerted to the problem or asked for assistance if he knew he would be preoccupied with more important things during the day. But the fact remains that his actions to cure an illegal roster message were not in violation of any rules and were within the purview of CBS’s settings for when players lock during the week.
It is always better when a league can handle its own issues internally and within the parameters of the rules that govern it. Of course the Court is always willing to provide whatever independent assistance we can when the parties have no other recourse to resolve a dispute. However, there are procedures delineated in the league’s rules which would allow this issue to be handled in-house. As a member of the league since its inception in 2008, General Zod has actual notice of the requirement that challenges to the commissioner’s decisions must go to a league vote. While the Court believes that the commissioner’s decision was based on a vague and misguided interpretation of the rules and that General Zod did not do anything contrary to what he is permitted to do, it is held that this issue be remanded back to the FBMFFL for further handling through a league vote as called for in the league’s rules.
IT IS SO ORDERED.