The Commish's Court: Letters of the law

"Know your league's rules" -- Matthew Berry, in his Draft Day Manifesto.

This is the best advice you can get, regardless of whether you're playing fantasy baseball, fantasy football, fantasy hockey, or even fantasy "Beverly Hills, 90210." Whether you're playing with a small close-knit group of friends, a bunch of coworkers, or a million complete strangers on the internet, the surest way to ensure yourself from making a complete fool of yourself is to read your league's constitution and make sure that brilliant, MacGyver-esque maneuver you're about to pull off is not in fact expressly forbidden right there in bold print, ALL CAPS and underscored for emphasis. There is, however, one axiom that I think needs to be placed above "know your rules" in the fantasy sports hierarchy, and that's this: Don't play with lawyers.

Now, before any of you attorneys out there get all litigious and start filing those slander complaints, allow me to clarify. I've got nothing against lawyers. Some of my best friends are lawyers and have been in my fantasy sports leagues for many years. But something seems to happen to these usually upstanding citizens when they get into a group. Just as Comic-Con inspires otherwise normal people to get their inner Klingon on, when you get a group of lawyers playing together in the same fantasy league, there's a tendency for folks to become all Johnnie Cochran. A set of league rules that normally would take up maybe three or four typewritten pages suddenly becomes as long as a Dickens novel. Invariably, owners take just as much pleasure in finding the loopholes and discrepancies in this wordy document as they do trying to select a starting third baseman for the week. Don't buy my premise? Well, if the letters in my mailbox fit, you must acquit!

The first comes from Earl in Arkansas: "I am currently in first place in a H2H points league. The fourth-place team is on fire right now. The fifth-place team's record is even with the fourth place team. I play the fifth place team next week. The league manager and I had a conversation about me playing my bench next week. [He] informed me that if I chose to do so, he would take over my roster and play my starters for me. Does he have any right to do this? The league by-laws have a clause that enables the LM to remedy conduct detrimental to the league. (Five of the 10 members are third year law students.) My position is that this conduct is not detrimental to the league; I should be able to play whomever I choose, as it is my team. Besides, my bench consists of James Loney, Hunter Pence and Ryan Zimmerman. Can you please settle this dispute for us?"

Earl, it appears to me that your league manager is jumping the gun here, hoping to stop you from doing something that often rears its ugly head in head-to-head leagues as the playoffs approach. As the first-place team, you have the ability, in essence, to choose your playoff opponents by intentionally tanking games and allowing the teams you perceive to be "weaker" to beat you, thus edging out "stronger" teams. Certainly, efforts of this sort are not guaranteed to work, because even a team of backups might end up winning for you in a given week. Also, even if the tactic is successful, the team you thought was weaker might end up eliminating you in the playoffs, while you might have beaten the so-called stronger team.

Personally, I've found the fantasy sports gods usually step in and intervene with karma when a team adopts a tactic such as this, Earl. That's why I always try to field my best team each week, and not worry about opponent or his starting lineup. More importantly, this situation is different from a last-place team who tanks a game so his buddy can win and get into the playoffs. That's collusive. Here, a first-place team might be tanking a game, but he is doing so in an attempt to improve his team's position. That's not collusive.

I could wax on further about the "slippery slope" a league manager heads down by attempting to make a value judgment on hunches that an owner makes; for example, is an owner who decides to start Jorge Cantu at third base instead of Alex Rodriguez "tanking" or is he simply taking a chance on a particular set of matchups for the week? However, I'll save that lengthy argument for another time, because there's a simpler explanation why Earl's LM was out of line. It's a legal concept called prior restraint, and it essentially means that Earl shouldn't be punished or chastised for something he hasn't yet done. By essentially convicting Earl of a fantasy baseball crime before he had even done anything is bullying, plain and simple. Creating such a negative and distrustful climate is far more detrimental to a league than taking corrective action after the fact.

Earl's league was made up of a bunch of law students. They've yet to take things to the next level of lawyer-ese, like the situation presented to me in this letter from John from Boston: "Our league is made up of a bunch of lawyers, so you can imagine the squabbles over the tiniest wiggle room in the rules. We've had our beauties but this seemed easy, until our league secretary and rules guru insists on his interpretation. Our deadline for waiver claims is 'by noon.' He made a claim that was posted at 12:00. Everyone but him interprets the rule to be before 12:00 you're fine, after 12:00 it is untimely. He and his Harvard education insist that by noon includes the 12:00 to 12:01 time-frame. Our site only lists to the minute. As Commish, I have told him that noon is when the big hand and the little hand are on the 12, and as soon as the second hand reaches the 12, it is noon. As the second hand passes 12, it is after noon, and therefore any posting at 12:00 or later is not 'by noon.' It is the risk one takes to wait until the last minute, not showing your hand to make sure someone lower in the standings doesn't trump your waiver claim. As Commish and arbiter, I read your columns as much as possible. We would really respect your opinion on this matter of timely postings to beat the deadline."

See, Earl? This is the kind of dispute that gives lawyers a bad name. They're actually arguing whether a deadline has any room for interpretation. At least they've narrowed the subject down. Clearly we all agree 11:59 a.m. is good and 12:02 p.m. is way too late. But what about noon on the dot? Does "by noon" include noon? Is there a difference between "by noon" and "no later than noon"? And if we accept that noon is included in "by noon" then isn't 12:00:00 p.m. really just an extension of 11:59:59 a.m. and wouldn't that raise a question about 12:00:01 p.m.? Wouldn't that mean then that by definition, a deadline has no true definable end, and therefore has no way of being enforced? Or is that taking things too far?

I guess to truly render my verdict in this case, John, I have to use an analogy. I write this column every week, and I have a deadline by which I need to submit it to my editor. On occasion, for whatever reason, I sometimes find myself still writing as the deadline approaches. Now, is my editor going to be upset if I send in the article three hours late? Of course. Is he going to be upset if it comes in one or two seconds after the deadline? Probably not. But would he have a right to reprimand me, even for missing a deadline by such a slim margin? Yes, he would. That's why it's called a deadline and not a wounded-but-he-should-make-a-complete-recovery-line. So, I make it a habit to do whatever it takes to meet that deadline, even if it means I sometimes have to rush my way through the final few sentences, or cut my ideas a bit short. A deadline is a deadline.

So, in conclusion, John, I hereby rule that …

AJ Mass is a fantasy football, baseball and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.