How to draft your league's constitution

It happens every year around this time. Another intrepid individual dares to become the architect of his own fantasy league. Whether the idea was his or hers alone, perhaps as a result of years of frustration of playing under someone else's rules, or if it was planted there by somebody else and grew like a virus until there was no choice but to take a leap of faith that everything would work out in the end, there is one vital thing that needs to be learned by any potential fantasy commissioner: have a constitution.

A written set of rules is essential to the success of even the most casual of fantasy leagues. It heads off the vast majority of disputes and cuts down on most of the grief, making the whole experience far more fun for both the commissioner and owners alike. A constitution keeps the league from entering a limbo from which there is no escape. So what is it that stops most people from crafting a constitution? Fear and insecurity.

Many people incorrectly believe they have to produce a document that would make the founding fathers proud or that they must produce page upon page of cleverly worded rules to cover every single possible situation that might arise during a fantasy season. Not so. All you need to do for your first season of play is answer a few simple questions.

Question 1: Why are you playing?

Is the primary purpose of this league to have fun? Is it to keep in touch with some college buddies? Is it to give you and your coworkers something to talk about away from the office? Is it to try to win a lot of money? Why did you start this league? Give your league a name and a brief mission statement.

For example: "This is the constitution of The Insert Name Here Fantasy Football League. This league exists in order to add an extra element of fun to the daily drudgery of working for Really Lousy Company Inc."

Congratulations. You've just written the first section of your league constitution. Do your best to stick to the spirit of this opening salvo.

Question 2: Who will be playing with you?

If you're thinking about starting a league, you probably have a few folks in mind to play with you. How many? Who are they? That will give you an idea of how many teams you will have in your league. Remember, there's no need to go hunting around for warm bodies just to fulfill some preconceived quota. It's far better to start small with an intimate group of owners who are gung-ho about the idea of playing all season long rather than loading up your league with people who will drop out just as soon as you ease up on the arm-twisting.

"The Insert Name Here FFL consists of 12 owners. For the 2010 season, these owners are Cobb, Arthur, Ariadne, Eames, Saito, Yusuf, et al."

Question 3: What makes up a roster of players?

How many players will each team draft? Will your league be made of players from the entire NFL? You can certainly limit your player pool to "guys from the SEC who were drafted in odd-numbered rounds" if you like, but remember, the more owners you have, the bigger the player pool you'll need to stock rosters. Finding an appropriate balance between each owner having a never-ending supply of Pro Bowlers to choose from and needing to know the names of practice squad kickers in order to compete successfully can be accomplished with a simple sentence:

"Each team of The Insert Name Here FFL will have 17 players on its roster, coming from any team in the NFL."

Question 4: How will you get that roster?

Do you pick names from a hat? Do you have a draft? Do you hold an auction? Do you keep the same players for life or do you plan on drafting from scratch each season? Remember to schedule this potentially time-consuming event sooner, rather than later, to increase the likelihood of finding a block of time that fits into every single owner's calendar of events.

"Every year, The Insert Name Here FFL will hold its annual draft. This year, the draft will be held at (insert time/date here). A draft order will be selected at random and each team in turn will select players until its roster is complete. At the start of the next season, all teams will draft again from scratch."

Question 5: What kind of changes to the roster can be made once the draft is over?

Can teams make trades? If so, are all trades to be allowed, or is there some form of commissioner/peer review? If a player gets hurt, can he be replaced? Is there some sort of free-agent pool owners can choose from? If so, how? Is it first-come, first-served, or is there a weekly bidding system?

This is the section where most of the controversies will arise, so it's important to be as specific as possible. If this is your first time as a league commissioner, you're bound to leave something out here, but that's OK. Part of building a league is building trust among your owners. A little conflict resolution can be a good thing, provided that your decisions never contradict what you've already written down. Again, this section could grow to be pages long, but feel free to simply start with something simple:

"Teams in The Insert Name Here FFL can make any trade they want up until kickoff of the first game of Week 11. After that time, no trades will be allowed. Teams may drop a player from their roster at any time and replace him with any player who is not on another owner's team. This process is first-come, first-served. Any team wishing to do so must send an e-mail to the entire league, at which time the move becomes official. Teams may send only 15 such e-mails during a season."

Question 6: How do you determine who wins each week?

This is the heart of any league's constitution. Are you playing touchdowns only, points-per-reception or some other system? Are you going with standard ESPN scoring, or will you be including more obscure statistics such as "one point for each solo tackle made in the backfield between the 40s"? Does each team have to start its entire roster or is there a starting lineup (with or without a positional requirement) and a bench? This section could get extremely complicated, as you might imagine, but it can also be as simple as the following:

"Each team in The Insert Name Here FFL shall announce its starting lineup before kickoff of the first game of each week of the season. A starting lineup consists of one quarterback, two running backs, two wide receivers, one tight end, one kicker, one team defense and one additional flex player who may be either a running back or a wide receiver. This lineup shall be assigned points as follows: four points for a touchdown pass, six points for all other touchdowns, one point for an extra point, three points for a field goal, one point for each 25 yards passing, one point for each 10 yards rushing or receiving, one point for each sack and one point for each defensive turnover forced. Each team plays one game per week as listed in the schedule on the league website. Each week, the team with more points than its opponent gets a win."

Question 7: How do you determine who wins the whole shebang?

How many teams make the playoffs? Are there multiple divisions? Do the division winners get byes? What if two teams are tied? Is the final two weeks long or a single week? Do you play in Week 17, when most NFL teams notoriously rest their stars, or not? Most importantly, how do you break a tie if two teams end up with the same exact score in a playoff game? Figure it out now or suffer the consequences:

"The playoffs will take place from Week 14 through Week 16 of the NFL season. The two division winners will get byes and the next four teams will be seeded by record and face off in Week 14. If two teams have the same record, head-to-head results between the tied teams will break the tie, followed by total points scored for the season. If the teams are still tied, we will toss a coin to determine the higher seed. In Week 15, the two winners of those games play the two division winners. The last two teams face off in Week 16 to determine the overall league champion. If any playoff game ends in a tie, the higher seeded team will advance."

Question 8: What does the winner get?

The main reason to play fantasy sports of any kind should be to win bragging rights over your fellow owners. Making a profit should never be the main goal. Having said that, if your owners do embrace that basic philosophy, then there is nothing wrong with sweetening the pot a little bit, but be reasonable. If you're a bunch of college students, you shouldn't be playing for the same stakes as a bunch of corporate attorneys. Keep it within your means. This will keep things fun and prevent people from taking the whole thing WAY TOO seriously.

"At the end of the season, The Insert Name Here FFL champion will be taken out to dinner by the rest of the owners in the league at a restaurant of his or her choosing."

All done? Nice work. You now have laid the groundwork for your league's first constitution.

Show it to the people you were planning on inviting to join your league. Have them read it. Ask them if they have any questions. They most likely will. In our example, somebody may read it and wonder, "What happens if two teams tie during the regular season?" Whoops! It's not really covered, is it? There's your first addition to the constitution.

Once everyone has had a look at the rules and you've all signed off on them, you're ready for your league's first fantasy season. But your task is not yet over. In fact, a good commissioner knows that this task is never over -- the top is always spinning. A league constitution will evolve over time as the league changes and new situations arise. The important thing is that these changes always come after discussion with, and input from, your fellow owners, and they are never made in the middle of the season, unless the change is merely to provide clarification for an already existing rule.

If you follow this kind of approach, your league has a great chance of long-lasting happiness, even if the team you drafted ends up lost in an endless dream of despair.

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