“How does it feel to be morally bankrupt?”
So read the vaguely threatening message that popped up on my fantasy basketball group chat recently. It came right after another one I had missed:
“Thumbs up if you plan on leaving that domestic abuser on waivers, no matter how well he does this season.”
I’m new to fantasy basketball, so it took a little digging to figure out what was going on: A buddy of mine was chastising a mutual friend for adding Miles Bridges, a forward for the Charlotte Hornets, to his roster. Bridges is a great player, but he’s also, it seems, a pretty terrible human being.
Last summer, Bridges was arrested on charges of domestic violence and child abuse after he allegedly brutally attacked his then-girlfriend in front of their two children. In November, he pleaded no contest and was sentenced to three years on probation, one year of counseling, and 100 hours of community service. The judge in the case also instituted a 10-year protective order that required him to have no contact with his kids’ mother. In the aftermath, the NBA handed down a 30-game suspension that recently expired.
Sadly, that’s not the end of the story. In October, Bridges allegedly breached the protective order and caused an incident in which he screamed and threw billiard balls at his ex-girlfriend’s car while his kids were inside it. He allegedly threatened to withhold child support if his ex-girlfriend went to the police. Bridges turned himself in shortly thereafter and remains free on bond.
Yet not long after the new charges were filed, he returned to the basketball court, racking up points for both the Hornets and his fantasy league owners — including my “morally bankrupt” friend.
Certainly we should condemn the Cleveland Browns for signing Deshaun Watson, accused of being a serial sexual abuser. Or the Dallas Mavericks for acquiring Kyrie Irving after he posted a string of antisemitic messages on Twitter. Or the Boston Bruins for adding high school uber-bully Mitchell Miller to their lineup. (Following a public outcry, the Bruins let him go.) But does it really matter if we put such players on our fantasy teams?
I think it does. I don’t draft morally compromised people anymore, and I don’t think you should either. Because while the research is limited, there’s evidence that popular fantasy players get real benefits in the real world — benefits the worst of them don’t deserve.
In 2020, Yahoo Sports’s fantasy league analyst Matt Harmon interviewed a number of NFL players for whom real-world celebrity followed fantasy fame. One was Antonio Gates, whom some call the best tight end ever. But Gates didn’t really get national renown until nobodies like me started drafting him. As he told Harmon, “Fantasy was the league that kind of put me on the map.” (Gates went so far as to suggest that fantasy put tight ends as a position on the map, which may help explain why the most famous singer in the world is dating Travis Kelce.)
Another NFL player, Allen Robinson, had a similar experience. He had a breakout campaign in 2015 playing for the small-market Jacksonville Jaguars but was largely ignored outside Florida until he started getting drafted in fantasy football. “After that,” Harmon writes, “no matter where he went in the country he was recognized by fans all over. Not necessarily as the great wideout . . . but as the guy who helped them win their fantasy league.”
Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that there is a strong correlation between fantasy ownership and merchandise sales. Of the 15 players with the top-selling jerseys in the NBA last year, 14 are owned in at least 98 percent of ESPN leagues. And there are similar trends in the NFL, MLB, and NHL.
Recent research into the attitudes of fantasy owners may help explain this phenomenon. Fantasy participants tend to humanize the players they draft. Brendan Dwyer, professor of sport leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University, and his colleagues observed that fantasy league owners subconsciously feel that they have a “legitimate, real life relationship” with the athletes on their fantasy teams.
All of this is to say nothing of the ways professional leagues in general benefit from fantasy sports. A recent study conducted for the Fantasy Sports & Gaming Association found that 64 percent of fantasy managers report watching more live sports because of their involvement in a fantasy league, and 73 percent say they’ve purchased memorabilia associated with their fantasy teams. Which means that merely by playing fantasy sports, we’re supporting the organizations that employ Bridges, Irving, Watson, and the rest.
Now, I’m not ready to stop playing altogether. My fake basketball team will suit up again tonight. But along with my friend, I won’t be adding domestic abusers to my roster. And maybe someday soon, the Hornets won’t, either.
Joshua Pederson is an associate professor of humanities at Boston University and the author of “Sin Sick: Moral Injury in War and Literature.”