The Four Guiding Philosophies of Fantasy Sports

Contemporary philosophy is a complex mélange of performance art propaganda and academic journal publication. These days, anyone can call himself a philosopher – one can even procure a Master’s degree in Philosophy by inputting a valid debit card number, though the degree’s credentials may be suspect.

Modern philosophy can be confusing, multi-faceted as it is, though it can be generally broken up into a few core categories that help organize it into bite-size, digestible chunks.

Four of these general categories – pessimism, optimism, logic and statistics, and the avant-garde – are big in modern philosophy and in fantasy football. In fact, I believe most players in any fantasy league will fall into one of these four categories.

Let’s look at four contemporary philosophers and the truths they can teach us about fantasy sports.

The Optimist

The father of contemporary optimism may be Gottfried Leibniz, a pleasant little fat man who famously deduced that we must live “in the best of all possible worlds.” In short, Leibniz said that we should be happy, because we live in a universe in which the very helpful laws of physics apply, and that it appears our Creator wanted us to be generally free from pain and turmoil. His hope was that man would evolve socially, rather than physically, and that eventually a state of peaceful reason and immortality would prevail upon the planet. Pretty cheery stuff, right?

I think most fantasy owners are, by nature, optimists. They believe in their roster, they truly believe that the trade they’ve proposed is fair and will be accepted, and (in the case of fantasy basketball players) they truly believe that THIS will finally be Brook Lopez’ year. But not all fantasy optimists are as benign as this.

Think of that one player in your fantasy baseball league who peppers you with trade offers and requests – one or two a day plus all sorts of side comments and “friendly” banter. The constant roster-shuffler who thinks one day he’ll land that deal that will save his season. This is the guy who starts of all his emails or messages to you with the words “I know it sounds crazy, but . . .” and then tries to seal a first-round PF/C in exchange for two injured guards. The kicker is that he really thinks he can wheel and deal his way from a second-tier roster to a league championship. This is his weakness – he cares not about statistics, buried as he is in a downpour of email responses and trade proposal tweaks.

The problem with Leibniz is that it requires a belief in an intelligent creator, a benevolent God-figure who wants the best for us. Basically every major philosopher in his wake has bemoaned the lack of just such a figure, ignored it outright, or called for the end of it. Leibniz, like our trade-happy friend, is an optimist to a degree that inspires pessimism. You should have no trouble beating this guy every time you meet him, provided you don’t feel so much pity that you actually agree to one of his trades.

The Pessimist

“To live alone is the fate of all great souls.” Such was the opinion of Arthur Schopenhauer, easily one of the 20th Century’s darkest thinkers. Schopenhauer believed we’d all be better off if we considered suicide on a regular basis, considering the pros and cons of remaining alive. He was ultimately driven by an optimistic goal – the desire to live in a society in which only those with a true will to live could possibly survive. Unfortunately, his writings have largely been translated and taught as pessimistic (or even nihilistic) in the decades since Arthur keeled over on a couch in perfect silence at the age of 72.

Some of us are fantasy pessimists. We regularly consider giving up – like any hobby, fantasy sports offers us good days and bad days. As fantasy pessimists, we worry that our baseball roster is too old, our football roster too slow, and our basketball roster too unproven. But the vast majority of fantasy Schopenhauers aren’t a real problem. The trouble is the one quitter every league seems to have.

We may be annoyed to death by the player who constantly wants to make ridiculous trades, but at least he’s participating. The quitter makes the league less enjoyable by their very presence. They’ve apparently decided that their lot in life – their draft, their inability to win in Week One, or just their general sport malaise – is bad enough that they should disappear entirely. They haven’t the decency to leave a note.

Beating the quitter is easy, since you know they won’t change their roster. Use this head-to-head contest to prepare for your next competition. Though in some ways Schopenhauer was influential, he’s mostly been passed-over in favor of the slightly-less dark-sided Computer Age guys like Heidegger. It’s best to trim this guy from your invite for next season.

The Statistician

Ludwig Wittgenstein’s groundbreaking treatises and arguments were grandiose – he believed he solved all the problems of philosophy, twice, and that there would be no more need for philosophers. Six or seven decades later, and we still have some use for great thinkers. Wittgenstein’s influence in his day was huge – his colleagues were known to only half-jokingly refer to him as “God” – but has waned in recent decades due to sea changes in modern philosophical thought.

The best fantasy owners are probably at least part statistician. Some fantasy sports are more stat-wealthy than others (I’m looking at you, baseball Sabermetrics) but all of them involve statistics of some kind. Analyzing statistics is not bad by nature – but every now and then you’ll come across the guy who

Wittgenstein looked at the world through a filter of pure facts, seeking to understand the universe by breaking it down into its essential parts. He looked for meaning in minute details. He longed for the essence of words, demanding students break down their understanding of simple concepts like “chair” until they found the true meaning of “chair-ness.” Think of your league’s statistics junkie as nothing more than another victim of Wittgenstein’s heady and addictive philosophical sorcery; a tough contender, but easy to defeat with homework of your own.

Beat the Wittgenstein stat-junkie by temporarily becoming one yourself. You know when you’ll compete against him, so prepare. Filling your head with alternative metrics and obscure percentages for a week or two won’t hurt you; in fact, in the long run, like Wittgenstein’s philosophical meanderings, it may do you a world of good. After all, there is still a dedicated cadre of philosophical nerds who worship Ludwig Wittgenstein as though he were, after all, a god.

The Prankster

Salvador Dali once said that he didn’t need to take drugs because, in his words, “I am drugs.” He blended avant-garde art, popular design, and commercial consumption like no other 20th Century artist of any genre. He left an indelible imprint on contemporary everything. From music to sculpture to food and fashion, Salvador Dali wanted to be like Pablo Picasso and ended up becoming something else altogether, a merry prankster who held up a mirror to contemporary society so it could laugh at itself.

Most leagues have a Dali-style joke artist, a guy who seems to be into the game more for slamming his buddies than for concocting a winning strategy. He has one-liners galore, embarrassing photos of you as a child, and your girlfriend’s cell phone number (somehow) and he doesn’t care if you out-score him by a billion, he’s going to try to burn you.

How do you beat Dali? The historical Dali wasn’t a traditional philosopher, and this character isn’t a traditional fantasy player. Since he doesn’t care whether he wins or loses, you have to care for him. This is one head-to-head where you’ll need to do everything you can to demolish the joker’s roster – he may do ridiculous things like start injured players or forget to start a defense, in which case you have a chance to build up a huge advantage.

This contest is all about you racking up as much of a point differential as you can. Since Dali didn’t care about the rules, the rules were better off not acknowledging Dali, either. Laugh at his jokes, prep a few one-liners if you must, but use your weekly head-to-heads against this guy to increase your point differential – even if this stat doesn’t matter in your league, it’s always good to play as though the game matters.

Philosophy is not a hard science; it’s not an art, and it’s not exactly a branch of psychology or medicine. It exists in its own liminal space, much like fantasy sports. Though millions of people play fantasy football or fantasy golf in a given year, they generally fit a small number of player profiles. Similarly, the world’s billions tend to follow a few different ways of viewing the world. Looking at fantasy tactics through the eyes of a philosopher makes sense as long as the goal is to get a leg up on an opponent.

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