Scholars of sport know that study of our games can lead students to grapple with complex issues. But fantasy sports? As the best players will attest, success in fantasy leagues requires diligent research, evaluation of data, analysis of multiple sources, and creative thinking when plans hit a dead end. In other words, the same skills that successful students use.
I began class as I normally did by asking the students if they had any questions. One raised his hand.
“Should I start Flacco over Brees this week?”
No, I responded. Drew Brees was a must-start, even with a tough match up, while Joe Flacco was due for a clunker. Some students agreed with me, others with their risk-taking classmate. Another student in the front row announced that Eddie Lacy was on the trade block. “I’ll give you Manziel for Lacy,” shouted someone from the back. We all laughed. None of us would have traded a sub sandwich for Johnny Football.
So began another day in First-Year Experience 1220: Fantasy Sports.
First-Year Experience (FYE) courses and programming have become commonplace at many colleges and universities across the United States. At Georgia Southern University, where I teach, FYE 1220 is part extended orientation, part seminar. Students learn about university policies and resources, the importance of ethical behavior and time management, goal-setting and career services, information literacy, and so on. What makes FYE at Georgia Southern somewhat unique is that we structure our courses around a theme chosen by individual instructors. My colleagues, for instance, have led seminars on everything from coffee to The Hunger Games, graphic novels to board games. I chose fantasy sports.
This wasn’t a difficult decision. I’m a historian of sports. I have written a biography of Arthur Ashe, and I’m working on another book about the 1919 Black Sox Scandal. But my interest in sports goes beyond the academic. I’ve played fantasy football, baseball, and hockey for years, with varying degrees of success. I listen to SiriusXM Fantasy Sports Radio on my way to and from the office. My involvement in fantasy sports reflects that of the general public. Fantasy sports has never been more popular or lucrative. Anyone watching an NFL game last fall and winter found themselves inundated with ads for DraftKings and FanDuel. In 2015 alone, the top daily fantasy sites took in almost $3 billion in entry fees, tripling the amount of business from the previous year. The Fantasy Sports Trade Association (FSTA) reported that each player spent an annual average of $465 on fantasy gaming. And although men make up the majority of fantasy participants, women now represent 34 percent of the industry. My wife routinely defeats me in fantasy leagues.
When I decided to offer a course on fantasy sports I knew there would be interest. I have taught the seminar twice, and I’m teaching it again this summer and in the fall. Usually, the class is comprised of 20-25 freshmen with a wide range of fantasy experience and expertise. Some are better experts than me, while others had only heard of fantasy sports. One student recently admitted, “I really did not know much about football let alone the process of how ‘fantasy drafting’ works.” Yet after the semester ended that same student wrote me to say, “Honestly, this class will probably help me more in the future than a chemistry class (that has nothing to do with my major) would. This class is relatable, modern, and relevant to everyday life since football is very prominent in today’s society.”
The two most common sentiments expressed by students in their course evaluations are interest and enthusiasm. All of us who teach know that when we are enthusiastic the students are more likely to buy in. Ditto if they enjoy the topic. “Coming into college young and afraid,” noted one student, “the expectation isn’t to have fun in a class. By offering a class where the topic is enjoyable it allows us as students to build a trust with the professor. In turn I was personally more attentive to the knowledge the professor would provide because it wasn’t all work and no play. [It] was a great class in how to show passion.”
More often than not, however, my course was not focused on the ins and outs of fantasy sports. In fact, the class was more like a bait and switch. Together we used fantasy sports as a vehicle to explore college life and learn basic academic skills. For example, each student in the class drafted and managed a fantasy football team. Veterans of fantasy sports understand that preparation is a key component of winning a league. Yet, like life in general, fantasy leagues are unpredictable. What if Tom Brady blows out his knee or Giancarlo Stanton gets hit in the face with a pitch? What if the Miami Dolphins’ defense is just plain bad? What if another manager drafts Bryce Harper a pick before your turn? The best fantasy players are able to roll with the punches and adjust on the fly – much like good students. A student might spend a week studying for a test and still earn a C. Students can easily oversleep and miss a quiz or misread an assignment. In fantasy sports, as in real life, we emphasize the importance of responding positively to obstacles and mistakes. Just as a savvy fantasy manager might replace an injured Le’Veon Bell with DeAngelo Williams, I encourage students to search their own waiver wires – for tutoring, help from the professor, and opportunities to marry their majors to internships.
I also use fantasy sports to teach students how to evaluate information in the chaotic digital age. Whenever students are assigned a research paper, their default setting is to go to Google. Working with our students to distinguish reputable websites from problematic ones can be a tedious task. Here is where fantasy sports come in handy. I ask my students to bring with them to class one article about fantasy sports from any website. We then evaluate their articles according to the CRAAP criteria: currency, relevance, authority, accuracy, and purpose. Was their article on Cam Newton written by an expert from Rotoworld or a Panthers fan with a WordPress account? Was it posted within the week or just after Newton was drafted out of Auburn? Does it examine his fantasy potential or his taste in music? One student explained why the theme helped in absorbing the academic topics: “The actual material needed to be covered in FYE is very basic and often boring…. Getting to talk about something we were passionate about was a great way to integrate the facts of FYE.” Another wrote, “Because it was something that all of us were interested in, it made us more willing to listen to the required material that we might not have found as interesting.”
Although the course centers on the fantasy sports industry, we do not ignore the human element of athletics. We discuss and write about, among other topics, the NFL’s concussion crisis, bullying and hazing, the exploitation of college athletes, sexual assault and domestic violence, and mascot controversies. The students give individual and group presentations in which they make arguments and defend their views with evidence. Above all, we have fun while learning.
Eric Hall is assistant professor of history at Georgia Southern University and author of Arthur Ashe: Tennis and Justice in the Civil Rights Era. He is on Twitter at @