How fantasy football can lead to a college education

17-year-old Moses Joy will receive help funding his education at Drexel University thanks to his success at fantasy football. Courtesy: Ramin Mohajer

Winning a college scholarship by playing fantasy football sounds like ... well, a fantasy.

But it's not.

A year ago we told you about GM Genius, a new program being launched by How I Decide, an educational nonprofit based just outside Philadelphia. The idea was to use fantasy football to teach students critical-thinking skills, and offer scholarship money to the top players as well.

A year later we can report that nearly 1,000 students participated in GM Genius' first season -- from all 50 states and three Canadian provinces -- and more than $20,000 in scholarship money was distributed.

"Kids just absolutely seemed to love the program," said Ramin Mohajer, director of operations at How I Decide. "They said they learned a ton, said they improved their fantasy skills, and the vast majority of kids -- over 90 percent -- would recommend it and play again."

One of those students is Moses Joy, a 17-year-old recent graduate of Central High School in Philadelphia, who will be attending Drexel University in the fall. Joy said he signed up for GM Genius as a joke at first, but quickly became hooked and eventually earned a scholarship.

"The GM Genius program in my opinion is great," Joy said. "It allows kids to be friendly yet competitive with other people their age. I played fantasy football with my friends one time beforehand, but came in dead last that season. The program helped me make smart choices and review all my data before I made my decisions.

"In real life, the program taught me to look at things that happened previously, and base my future decisions with those things in mind."

Ryan Greenbaum, an assistant professor at Oklahoma State, used GM Genius in his sports management class last fall.

"The way I ran the class was to have [students] each go through and actually participate in the fantasy football league and the videos," Greennbaum said. "And then I incorporated more of the decision-making, predictive analysis stuff from my [previous] classes.

"It was definitely different than normal fantasy football, but it was definitely something that the students liked."

The videos are what makes GM Genius different. Each week of the football season, before the students set their fantasy lineups, they have to watch a 3- to 4-minute clip online or via the IOS and Android apps.

"Each one is focused on a different concept related to decision-making or critical thinking, and it's illustrated in the context of fantasy football," Mohajer said. "For example, confirmation bias, which is something that applies in all parts of life -- the idea that you often form an opinion before you do research, and then you end up just discrediting facts that don't line up with your opinion.

"We have other [videos] related to other cognitive biases besides confirmation bias. We have some related to more statistical elements, like how to create an expected value, and how to make a good forecast. We think there's all kinds of concepts that apply really well to fantasy football, but also apply outside of fantasy football."

Football season is quickly approaching, and GM Genius is gearing up for Year 2, expanding the age range of eligible participants to 13-22. They expect to give out even more scholarship money this year and have added an optional essay competition.

"Any kids that want to can submit an essay that reflects upon their experiences and applying these concepts to fantasy football," Mohajer said, "and the best essays will also win prizes."

The goal is to expand to around 10,000 students in Year 2 -- a tenfold increase. "But we think it can grow much more than that," Mohajer said, "when you look at the number of high school and college students who play fantasy football."

Lofty ambitions, indeed. But if you can pull off fantasy football scholarships, anything is possible, right?