There is something sinister about fantasy sports, the idea of “owning” athletes whose careers are necessarily ephemeral and fetishizing their abstracted statistical performance. This is especially true with football, that most brutal of all mainstream entertainments.
What makes fantasy football so compelling to some—and infuriating to more traditional sports fans still cleaving to local teams and hoary old narratives—is that the players are effectively fungible parts, valuable for their numerical production and not much else. In fantasy football, even more so than the regular game, winning isn’t everything—it’s the only thing.
The first draft of the catchily-named Greater Oakland Professional Pigskin Prognosticators League took place in August 1963, and early participants were all affiliated with the upstart American Football League in some capacity. But popular rotisserie sports didn’t really take off until the Internet unleashed fan communities and new statistical possibilities.
Now it’s easy to run as many fantasy football teams as one can manage, as sites like Yahoo and ESPN offer platforms with mobile phone apps—no matter where you are, you’re never without the chance to make a waiver claim on a hot new star at a skill position. The ubiquity of access to fantasy football and other fantasy sports has made it a billion-dollar industry with roughly 27 million players covering almost 20 percent of American males. Even Louisiana Governor (and possible 2016 presidential contender) Bobby Jindal live-tweeted his own fantasy draft last week.
Theres a hard reality behind the fantasy, however. Despite the best efforts of Max Boot—or was it Daniel Flynn?—to debunk The War on Football, those who watch the sport even sporadically know the stakes for those on the field: severe injury is a possibility on any given play.
Concussions, we are learning, strike in season and out. Former Jacksonville Jaguars wideout Laurent Robinson, for example, suffered multiple concussions the last year he was in Jacksonville—he is now out of the league and seeking redress. Robinson is not alone, many retired footballers have sued for, and apparently finally obtained, compensation for the mental faculties they forfeited for a few seasons of gridiron glory and filthy lucre.
Brain trauma can occur in preseason games—quarterback Kevin Kolb, the concussed Buffalo Bill signal caller, might never see the field again. Yet fantasy football players react to situations like those facing Kolb and Robinson (and other players who are euphemistically deemed “injury-prone”) with the keen interest of the scavenging vulture—and not because of the human drama of the game. Instead, the question is how these injuries might affect their fantasy rosters. As a fantasy football player—and multi-time champion, I might add—I took an interest too. Since the Bills quarterback situation was settled, in that Kolb was no longer a threat to start, I added E.J. Manuel—the team’s rookie first-round pick, injured in his own right at this point—for bench depth to my money league team.
Kolb, in the parlance of fantasy football, was simply “undraftable”—his history of injury, paucity of pocket presence, and lack of “upside” dictated that designation. Manuel, on the other hand? A running quarterback; a prized commodity that can score touchdowns by throwing or by scampering for pay dirt.
Anyone who has played fantasy football has wrestled with similar moral questions when it comes to talent acquisition. Consider when Michael Vick emerged in his current incarnation—first from Leavenworth, then from the Eagles’ bench. Many fantasy footballers had qualms with his history of dogfighting, dog-fight promoting, and dog killing. Others—even animal lovers like myself—chose to overlook his Bad Newz Kennels stint and pick him up on waivers when it was clear that the presumed Eagles starter (by coincidence, the aforementioned Kolb) was not going to be a factor in Philly. Michael Vick started for me in three leagues, and I won all three—and a few thousand dollars in the process. Vick, however, has not been able to stay healthy since.
Setting aside the serious ethical conundrums presented by fantasy football—and others including will my boss fire me and/or my wife divorce me if I keep obsessing over bench depth on my preseason roster?—there are very modern benefits for those who play.
One is the ability to interact with people whom one might care about but cannot actually see because they live far away or because work schedules don’t permit it. Most of the leagues I have been in over the years have involved playing with friends who lived hundreds of miles away, such as Bill Barnwell—now a writer for ESPN’s Grantland site. My current cash league involves people I know from back in the day whom I don’t see much anymore because I’m married, old, and boring.
Naturally, fantasy football has changed the nature of being an NFL fan—the Jacksonville Jaguars, my beleaguered hometown team, now display the NFL Redzone channel on stadium scoreboards as a sop to those who are willing to attend Jags’ games but still need to keep tabs on other loyalties.
In a sense, it is the perfect distraction for Americans living in an increasingly atomized and disconnected culture, working longer hours behind screens between longer commutes. Despite the inexorable changes imposed on us by this late stage of American capitalism, some reassuring constants remain. Among them, American football as a fixture on our Sunday televisions. Not to mention, no matter how bad things are going elsewhere in our lives, we can be winners where it counts: in our online rotisserie leagues.
A.G. Gancarski writes from Jacksonville, Fla., where he writes a sports column for the local alt weekly.