The cold calculus of fantasy football leaves little room for the sentimentalism at the heart of fandom.
The National Football League postseason is building toward its Super Bowl, but for many fans the most important competition ended last month. All over America, fantasy football players drafted teams in August before spending September through December reducing thousands of our planet’s largest and most athletic men to mere commodities, laboring mentally to assemble and manage rosters they likely followed more closely than that of any individual NFL team. This is no marginal activity; by now the Venn diagram describing NFL fans and fantasy football players would be two circles that overlap almost completely.
Twenty-seven million people play fantasy football, which is now a billion-dollar industry. Fantasy commentary and scores are increasingly interlaced within standard NFL coverage. People may share nothing else in common except for an obsessive love of professional football, a tenuous bond given the rivalries between favorite teams, but in our little leagues we provide one another the fantasy of joining the class of team owners and personnel managers, exploiting NFL players as our labor force rather than worshiping them as heroes.
Fantasy sports developed from small groups of fans obsessed with the statistics-heavy game of baseball. Now fantasy contests exist for every sport, even bass fishing, but fantasy football is the current king. Groups of interested football fans form themselves into leagues. While people do play with strangers online, the most common situation (or the one that at least feels more common because it involves real world social activity) involves people forming leagues with other people they actually know, much like forming a team for a bowling or softball league.
Media has become increasingly interactive across platforms since the 1990s, and fantasy football may be the most perfect expression of this process. Beginning with a draft of available NFL players, each fantasy football player player manages a team, and in 2011 Hollywood Reporter estimated that there were 27 million of us. Throughout the season, according to the idiosyncratic scoring rules of each individual league, the touchdowns, yards gained, and other on-field actions of individual NFL players on game day produce points for the fantasy football teams. Drafting and managing a fantasy football roster requires the valuation of NFL players as commodities: the sport demands that participants assess football players in terms of their relative values on the market. So we speculate and hedge like investment bankers. Who would you draft with the first pick in the draft? Who would you draft in subsequent rounds? Do you think Buffalo’s head coach Chan Gailey will give Fred Jackson too many carries, hurting C.J. Spiller’s value (Gailey did insist on overfeeding Jackson despite Spiller’s ridiculous 6.0 yards per carry and 10.7 yards per reception)? Which pick do I like that other guys have never heard of, which will make him available later in the draft, or even as a “free agent” afterwards — an ironic term in this context, since the virtual player is free on the market, but of course has no agency himself.
I’ve been playing fantasy football since 1989, but 2012 was one of my worst seasons ever, certainly since I began playing in several simultaneous leagues a decade ago. Of my five teams, only one made the playoffs, and three were among the worst teams in their leagues. Simply put, I failed to adequately valuate the pool of NFL players, particularly players who offered the potential of high returns at some risk, such as Skins’ dynamic rookie quarterback Robert Griffin, III. Griffin ended the season as one of the best at his position, rewarding those savvy enough to snag him in the middle rounds of a fantasy draft. Instead, I went soft and drafted the Jaguars’ running back Maurice Jones-Drew as early as the second round, partly out of my sympathy for his dissatisfaction with his contract (still unresolved) when he exercised his only leverage viz. the Jacksonville front office by holding out of training camp. I figured that rest was more valuable to a veteran ball carrier like MJD than the practice, but he looked rusty in September, before suffering a difficult-to-diagnose-and-treat season-ending foot injury.
Conversely, I was scared away from drafting the Vikings’ Adrian Peterson due to his significant injuries. Dubbed “Purple Jesus” by sports humorist Drew Magary, Petersen has been one of the best NFL and fantasy players for a few years, but he suffered a gruesome knee injury on Christmas Eve 2011, the kind that, until recently, ended careers. Reasonably, 2012 should have been his rehabilitation year. Instead, thanks to the wondrous evolution of sports medicine and his own “intestinal fortitude,” Peterson ended the year with 2,097 rushing yards, a mere nine yards short of Eric Dickerson’s NFL record. The gnawing reminder that I was too dense and conservative to spend a second round pick on him in any of my five fantasy drafts dampened my appreciation for this feat.
With cold, hard calculation such a part of fantasy football, there’s little room for any affective attachment to favorite teams or players. This includes “homerism” — investing out of provincial interest, like our fathers and grandfathers before us. Homers don’t just risk appearing foolish to their peers, they disrupt the internal logic of the fantasy game. Pittsburgh Steelers fans present a clear case study. The Steelers’ four league championships in the 1970s, coinciding with the beginning of the massive deindustrialization of the Rust Belt, have resulted in a diaspora of proud Yinzers across the continent. Any fantasy league will likely include a few Steelers fans whose loyalties, make Steelers players very difficult to valuate. Whenever I covet one, as I did in 2011 with unheralded receiver Antonio Brown, I feel like I have to draft the player at least two rounds higher than he would deserve if he played for any other team. Steelers’ running backs are still drafted absurdly high, even though Pittsburgh has not presented a feared rushing attack since the prime of Jerome “The Bus” Bettis’ career ended a decade ago, and the market value of the Pittsburgh defense continues to be inflated years after the fall of the Steel Curtain.
Experience teaches the fantasy football player a more dispassionate approach. We admire these players and we are their fans, but only to the extent that they can help us win our own games at a low opportunity cost. So instead of fanatical devotees, fantasy football teaches us to identify with team ownership and management — the ruling class of the National Football League, not the league’s labor force. The players achievements on the field, the purported spectacle of sport, are just a means to an end: market value. In this way, fantasy games represent the fan’s adaptation to the free agency era in sports.
As fantasy sports become more popular, the sporting culture industries will continue to generate content catered to it, integrated with ever more elegant suture into its broad array of offerings. The NFL’s own network this season began reporting fantasy points (based upon the standard scoring system employed by the League’s own website) with its real-time game reports, measuring a Sunday’s top performers by the metrics employed by fantasy football players. Thus, the NFL proudly participates with other large and small companies in the fantasy sports industry by cashing in on the digital labor of the league’s fans. Beyond sports programming, The League, a comedy on the FX network now in its fourth season, uses a fantasy football league as the device that binds together a group of laddish friends.
Fantasy games aren’t completely evil: they add an intellectually active, participatory dimension to the passive experience of spectator sports. However, this dimension operates as a component of the cultural logic of late capitalism. My critique is of a kind with Jacobin editor Bhaskar Sunkara’s recent In These Times article, which advocated “a critique of the structures that control and commodify sport, exploiting labor all along the way and narrowing our cultural horizons.” Sunkara rightly argues that popular activities such as sports are not inherently harmful, but are rendered harmful by the material historical conditions in which people find themselves. In our case, that is a situation in which everyday life is increasingly measured and calculated, the better to suit the market (or the austerity chopping block).
Even worse, there’s evidence that all this valuation is masturbatory. SB Nation’s Jon Bois points out that the difference in fantasy points between the best NFL players at each position and the 10th or 20th best player at each position is negligible, and the highest performers are as likely to come from the middle or late rounds of a fantasy draft as they are to come from the early rounds. A fantasy football league championship, like an impressive investment portfolio, is more likely to be a product of fortunate circumstances and idle fancy than hard work.
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