Featured Football Girl: Renee Miller, Ph.D.

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In upstate New York exists a fantasy football league where the owners have selected atypical team names like The Long Synapers, The Endolphins and Gray Matters. The commissioner of this “Brain Lovers” league is Renee Miller Ph.D., who is both a professor of neuroscience at the University of Rochester and one of the fantasy industry’s most unique voices.

Miller grew up in the upstate area casually watching football, though she did not have a strong affinity toward the Buffalo Bills, or any team for that matter.  But as the popularity of the NFL, and in conjunction fantasy football, exploded, Miller decided to the join her first league in 2006. She was easily hooked.

(Photo courtesy of Renee Miller)

Miller enjoyed playing fantasy for the reasons most enjoy playing – the camaraderie, the competition, the added layer to the NFL viewing experience. Yet it was not until late 2011 when Miller had her epiphany, one that would make her a more successful fantasy player and set off a robust hobby to potentially guide millions.

It was the first week in December, right before the fantasy playoffs. Miller was teaching a cognitive neuroscience course at Rochester. She was a new faculty member at that point and felt pretty overwhelmed since her background was in genetic molecular neuroscience.

As Miller got to a lecture about the various biases – one, the observer bias, is when you know the identity of a subject, as you analyze results you’re more likely to bias your analysis to favor your hypothesis – something clicked.  She realized, “Oh god, I do all of these,” of course referring to the misguided decisions she was making toward her fantasy team.

Intrigued by this revelation, Miller spent the next week researching the different biases and their ramifications on playing fantasy sports.  The correlations were strong. For example, Miller likened the omission bias, which she defines as “judging a harmful inaction less severely than a harmful action,” to a fantasy owner’s decision to drop a heavily utilized running back with a fumbling problem over a spot player, when both players have similar point totals on average. Miller decided to turn her findings into a piece titled, “Are You Really Running Your Team? Cognitive Bias in Our Favorite Fake Sport” (Her advice on the omission bias dilemma – keep the fumbler. More time on the field equals more fantasy upside.)

Though admittedly shy, Miller decided to pitch her piece to a couple of fantasy football websites, having no idea whether her emails would be retuned.  Chet Gresham, who now runs The Fake Football, was the first to reply and was thrilled to publish Miller’s piece on Razzball, a site he contributed to at the time.  It was well received, and Miller wondered whether this could be more than a one-time contribution.

“I just thought there was much more to be said,” she recalls.  “I really thought I could help people think in a different way.”

Miller subsequently continued her research and wrote a book titled, Cognitive Science in Fantasy Sports: Is Your Brain Sabotaging Your Team?”  It was published in May 2013.

In conjunction with the book’s release, Miller was urged to start a companion blog by her publicist at the University of Rochester. The blog, which included some fresh articles related to cognitive bias, garnered the attention of Frank DuPont, also known as The Fantasy Douche. He approached Miller and asked if she would like to write for his site Rotoviz where her work would gain more eyeballs.

After establishing a regular presence on Rotoviz, the flood gates opened for Miller, with multiple outlets asking her to contribute. Most offers have been legitimate but some have asked for too much compromise.

“I’ve heard from folks who say ‘we’d love for you to write for us but you need to dumb it down,’” Miller said. “One asked me if I could contribute a piece but to make sure no word had more than 10 letters.” Another suggested she “go to Pinterest and try to get girls to care about fantasy.” (For the record, Miller hates Pinterest.)

Miller recognizes that her heavily research-based pieces “may not be for everyone” in an industry so rooted in rankings and simple start/sit advice.

But for those looking for a richer understanding of how our brain predisposes us to wrong choices in fantasy, and potential ways to counteract that, Miller’s work is a critical read. This season she will be featured at The Fake Football, Pro Football Focus and Fantasy Insiders.

Though busy producing content, Miller continues to teach at the University of Rochester and currently has no interest in trying to make a real living at the fantasy game. She writes for fun and because playing fantasy is, as she says, “good for the brain.”

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Melissa Jacobs

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