These days, it seems impossible to discuss the NFL or to watch a game without someone either whining or bragging about the performance of a player on their fantasy football team. According to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association (yes, this organization is real), there were over 41 million fantasy sports players in the United States and Canada during 2014. Over 25.8 million of these fantasy sports players play fantasy football specifically. These players will help to generate over $1.1 billion in revenue for the industry in the form of ad revenue, and subscriptions to fantasy advice sites.
For those who may be unfamiliar, fantasy football and fantasy sports in general entail assembling a group of real-life professional athletes onto your team. The statistical performances of these players are then given point values so players can compete against each other in either head-to-head or season-long matchup formats. In ESPN standard fantasy football leagues, a wide receiver will give your team varying amounts of points for every touchdown and ten receiving yards. Players can also lose points for fumbling the ball or throwing interceptions. The season begins by holding a draft where every participant selects one athlete in each round of the draft, and players can change their rosters through free agency and trades with other players throughout the course of the season.
Football has become the most popular fantasy sport because the games are only played once per week, which means that players only have to adjust their roster once every week, as opposed to fantasy baseball or basketball players who have to adjust daily in some formats.
Fantasy football allows for friendly competition between friends, and players will often add stakes by putting in money at the start of the season. Fantasy sports in general are also enjoyable because they give fans a chance to make trades, scout rookies and analyze player data just like a real-life NFL front office does. Fantasy football changes the nature of fandom, and often turns professional athletes into a bunch of statistics. I am not trying to bash fantasy football here and I will readily admit that I love to play fantasy football, and have been playing since I was fifteen. However, I have definitely noticed that my passion for fantasy football has affected the way I engage with the NFL as a fan. Playing fantasy football does not require even watching the games, since fans are only concerned with the stat lines for their players. Football is more than just a list of numbers on a page. That is why the biggest issue I have with fantasy football—how it dehumanizes the sport. Fans never take into account the character of the athletes they are drafting, and are instead solely focused on the statistics surrounding the athletes. This focus on statistics over character has already manifested itself in an extreme way.
Back in February, a video was released showing former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice violently dragging his unconscious fiancée out of an elevator. The NFL originally gave Rice a paltry two game suspension for the incident. Since the suspension was for such a short time period, many players drafted Rice. Those people ended up regretting the decision when TMZ released additional footage on September 8, showing Rice knocking his fiancée unconscious with a punch in the face, before he dragged her out of the elevator, for which he was suspended indefinitely. It bothered me that so many people were able to ignore Rice’s transgressions in the hopes that his on-the-field performance would make up for them.
Beyond incidences such as the one involving Rice, the statistical nature of fantasy football takes some of the life out of the game. Football games can be emotional experiences, but fantasy football removes fans from these experiences. I know people who can tell you any player’s stat line from a game, but cannot come up with the team scores for said game. I find fantasy football to be a fun activity that helps people learn more about the game of football; however, I do not think it is right when dedication to fantasy football conflicts with someone’s fandom for actual teams and players.