Commentary

The Commish's Court: Legal lineups

Updated: October 22, 2008, 5:16 PM ET
By AJ Mass | ESPN.com

In many countries around the world, there are certain rules in place to ensure that the rights of individuals who have been accused of a crime are protected. One of these rules is that if there is to be a lineup to help a victim identify the person who did them wrong, the lineup has to be fair. For example, if you were mugged by a bald man, then the lineup the police arrange for you has to include nothing but bald men. Lining up your assailant with a bunch of Cousin Itt clones is not going to hold up in court. Of course, even when lineups are "rigged," that doesn't necessarily mean the victim will select the right person. Take this example from an Australian comedy troupe and you'll see what I mean.

Now when it comes to fantasy football, most leagues are smart enough to have rules to prevent owners from having illegal lineups. If you're supposed to start two running backs and two wide receivers, then this should be clearly spelled out so that when bye weeks come around, an owner simply can't decide to start Wes Welker, Greg Jennings, Devin Hester and Anthony Gonzalez when Maurice Jones-Drew and Michael Turner are off. Most owners do not have any problem grasping this simple concept and very few conflicts arise in this particular area. However, time and time again, the question of what constitutes a legal lineup does come to the fore, and it usually takes the following form. Take it away Jordan from Ohio:

Broncos Defense
AP Photo/Michael DwyerDenver's defense netted -1 points in ESPN standard leagues Monday, which is why some fantasy owners may have pulled the Broncos' D from their starting lineups this week.
"[A few weeks back] we had an occurrence I never considered and am not sure how to remedy, if at all. Here's the scenario: after all of the Sunday games, Team A leads Team B by four points. Team A still has his D/ST to play in the Monday night game. So as not to risk receiving any negative points from his D/ST, Team A pulls out his D/ST and starts nobody. Should this be allowed? Should the spot be filled? Is it too late to make a rule now this far into the season? Thank you for your help."

Fear not, Jordan, I am here for you. But before I answer your cry for help, let me assure you that you are not alone. This tactic of benching a Monday night player with a lead is more common than you'd think, as your comrade-in-arms Brian from Raleigh would attest:

"I have a question regarding whether or not a person has to start a full lineup each week. I am the league manager and one of the owners benched the Giants' defense prior to the Monday night game. The owner had a seven-point lead in his matchup with his opponent, and did this to avoid losing. His opponent contacted me and complained this was an illegal roster move. I could not find any rule addressing this issue in our league. Any advice on what actions I should or should not take?"

First off, you may notice both of these incidents involved taking out a team defense on Monday night, with the owner in effect "taking a knee" with the lead, acquiring an automatic zero from that roster spot and securing a victory without risking the possibility that his or her defense might allow a ton of points and/or yardage, thus snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. This is the most common time when this practice of "pulling a player" will take place, though certainly depending on the breakdown of start times for the players involved in your game, you may see this move being done before the Sunday night contest, or even as early as the Sunday 4:00 p.m. ET games.

The reason this is most often done with defenses is because in most leagues it is very difficult, if not impossible, for a position player to achieve a negative score for a given week. Perhaps a kicker who misses a couple of field goals might lose you a few points, or a quarterback who throws two quick picks and goes down to injury might send your score spiraling downward, but in general, if someone is going to really go into the tank and run up a huge negative number, it's going to be a team defense.

The people who make a move like this are sure to argue they are being very intelligent owners, and likely will sprain their shoulders reaching behind them to pat themselves on the back for their ingenuity and cleverness. I think they are cowards. The whole point of playing fantasy football is to prove you know more than your fellow owners when it comes to evaluating talent and selecting the best possible lineup, week in and week out. It's not supposed to be about vetoing trades so good teams can't get better. It's not supposed to be about who can manipulate the waiver wire to prevent a fellow owner from getting a free agent that he needs to fill an injury spot. And it's not supposed to be about pulling your defense at the eleventh hour simply because you know a poor performance could cost you the game.

Look, if you were that worried about this defense, then you shouldn't have started it in the first place. The fact is if your league states that a legal lineup consists of X number of players, including a team defense, then by deciding to not start a team defense at all, you are no longer starting a legal lineup. Period. Now I know there will be plenty of naysayers out there who will be outraged by my stand on this matter. They'll accuse me of having been burned by this tactic in this past, and that must be why I am so against what they'll call a completely legal tactic. "After all," they'll argue, "if such a move were truly illegal, why does the Web site let me do it?" Those are all excuses. The fact remains this is a bush league move, just like vetoing a deal for no other reason than your league allows for you to do so, even if the deal in question is a completely fair one.

As for what actions Jordan and Brian should take, I would recommend drawing a line in the sand right here and now. Clearly you both feel there's something that simply feels wrong about such a maneuver, and want to do something to prevent it in the future. Well, by doing nothing today, you're tacitly setting a precedent that it can be done again tomorrow. There's a difference between changing your rules midseason and merely clarifying one that already exists. You have a rule already in place that declares what makes up a legal lineup. All you have to do now is clarify that rule by sending out an e-mail stating that a legal lineup consists of "no more and no less than X" (where X is exactly what your rules state right now) and reminding your owners of the penalty teams face for not playing a legal lineup in a given week.

It's not just "starting" a legal lineup folks, it's seeing that lineup through to the end of the week's action that counts, and that means leaving your players in on Monday night, and not pulling them in favor of a player on a bye, or a fictional character like Darth Vader just because you don't want to "risk losing." If you can't get your entire lineup to the finish line ahead of your opponent, then you don't deserve to win the race.

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

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