Neuroscience and sports journalism aren’t two fields that usually cross. In fact, the only intersection that seems to exist is Renee Miller, an associate professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences (BCS) at UR. But merging those fields is just her day job. She’s also an award winning sports writer who has worked at RotoWire, ESPN, and The Athletic.
Miller’s specialty is applying cognitive science to fantasy sports, especially fantasy football. In fact, she literally wrote the book on the subject, and last year won the Fantasy Sports Writers Association’s “Best Fantasy Football Series” award for her column at The Athletic, “Brain Games.”
Her book, “Cognitive Bias in Fantasy Sports: Is Your Brain Sabotaging Your Team?,” and her column focus on the same questions: How do our biases and decision-making processes make us worse at fantasy sports? How do they make us better? How can we apply cognitive science in our daily lives, and how can we become more aware of the way we are already unknowingly doing so?
Fantasy sports interested Miller long before she began writing about them. She describes her family as “big sports fans,” pointing to her upbringing as where she first got interested.
In an interview with the Campus Times, Miller recalled, “[My brother] started a fantasy league with all his friends and needed an extra body, so he got me and my dad involved […] and I loved it.”
Since then, Miller has added a few more leagues into the mix, including one full of Neuroscience students. She also has tried out other sports, and a variety of formats.
Miller is particularly a fan of daily fantasy, even advocating on behalf of DraftKings, a major daily fantasy website, when they successfully sought to end New York State’s ban on daily fantasy betting in 2016.
“Daily fantasy involves skill, like poker,” Miller said, adding that the fact that skill is involved (and not just random chance) is actually what attracts her to daily fantasy. “I’m a scientist, and a scientist is a problem solver. I view [daily fantasy] as a puzzle to solve. It’s a different puzzle every week. There’s a ton of different possible solutions. I have a great time trying to figure out what are my best three or four.”
Miller was into daily fantasy from the beginning — around 2010 — and fantasy football as a whole only a few years before that. She didn’t begin writing until a couple years later when a colleague used fantasy as an example of a place where cognitive bias affects our daily life. That got her thinking about how she could connect her interest in neuroscience to her love of fantasy. Then in 2013, she published a book about it.
That was the beginning of her journey as a sports writer. But she didn’t immediately know where to go next. “I had a mentor, somebody who was running a fantasy site that I respected […] and he said, ‘What you have to do is start a blog.’”
So that’s exactly what she did. After Miller’s blog gained popularity, she began writing for RotoWire, ESPN, and The Athletic.
Miller’s writing is fairly personal despite the focus on science. She isn’t reporting on some new study; she’s connecting long-established phenomena to something she enjoys, and she’s telling us how we can do the same. She’s also seemingly the only person conducting research about sex differences in both the behavior of small worms and professional athletes.
Her tone is that of a knowledgeable friend sharing tips, rather than a scientist sharing test results or an ESPN talk show host giving their hot take. She is often more focused on the best ways to improve your decision-making process than which wide receiver is going to have a good game this week.
“[Starting a blog] was very uncomfortable for me at first because I’m not a self-promoter,” Miller said. “I didn’t write the book to get rich or famous. At heart I’m an educator, and like to share what I know with other people.”
As a professor (and the academic advisor for An Nguyen, the CT Publisher) she teaches college students; as a writer she teaches sports fans. But in either position, her goal is more or less the same: sharing her advice, free from condescension, about topics she is passionate about.