As we perfect our starting lineups for our fantasy football leagues, we ask: Has fantasy changed NFL fans for better or for worse?
It’s week 12 of the NFL season, and your team is taking the field with a potential playoff berth at stake. Carson Palmer, one of the best feel-good stories of the year, has reemerged as an elite quarterback. Now, if only Antonio Brown snags a few tosses for triple-digit yardage and a pair of touchdowns. But wait, Antonio Brown plays wide receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Carson Palmer is the signal caller for the Arizona Cardinals. No, Palmer isn’t actually going to be throwing passes to Brown, but both of their successes are important to you. In the world of fantasy football league, the ways in which we support professional football players has gone through a drastic makeover in recent years.
As a Cleveland Browns fan, my civic pride has almost undoubtedly been shattered by December, but because of fantasy football, I care in a different way. As fantasy football has grown from humble beginnings to a crucial part of the NFL’s operation, fans no longer swear allegiance to just one team with a specific set of players; they champion an all-star squad stored in one database or numerous digital ones. ESPN, Yahoo and CBS Sports are the most common fields of play, and with millions of dedicated football lovers signing up each year, the business of football has transformed in a number of respects — some good and others bad.
Team sports are meant to bring people together. There is something magical about tens of thousands of city dwellers crammed in one stadium watching their hometown team compete for glory and honor. The successes and failures of a city’s professional football team weigh heavily on many fans. After all, football has virtually transcended baseball as America’s pastime.
When looked at through a certain lens, the idea that a fan of the New York Giants is pulling for a player for the New York Jets holds a particular beauty. It’s as if the cultural mecca of the United States has truly come together for at least a period of time to wish a rival team’s competitor well.
But when examined more closely, the fantasy football league may be doing exactly what sports are designed not to do: dividing the people from an inherently selfish epicenter.
Instead of cheering for a band of brothers in matching uniforms, millions of fans pull for portions of those lineups — but only the segments that affect their own personal fantasy team. Whether the fantasy league consists of family members, friends or coworkers, the nature of fantasy football is to disregard previous predilections and home in on the successes and failures that translate to points on the online tracker rather than the stadium scoreboard.
For casual fantasy football fans, this may not strike as deep of a chord. Perhaps bragging rights aren’t as important as the hometown team winning the game, even if that means a player on the opposing team negatively impacts the fantasy numbers. But even then, a Cleveland fan could passively cheer for a Pittsburgh team because of Antonio Brown. A Packers fan may clap for the Bears, and a Cowboys fan may pull for the Redskins. Doesn’t that mean the fantasy football league has made fans marvel at the gracefulness of these skilled athletes no matter what colors they are wearing? Maybe so, and it’s possible that the intersection of team loyalty and the love of football have met at a divine point, but the story doesn’t end there.
The fantasy football league is like any other enjoyable hobby. The ones who play fantasy football regularly tend to become more involved as the years pass. When competitiveness starts to get the best of people, the tendency to wish for great things occasionally collides with the hope for failure. And suddenly, it’s not a collective team that people wish ill on; it’s a specific player on an opposing fantasy team. Sometimes unconsciously, fantasy football causes people to wish for not only poor performance but even bodily harm. The most dedicated fantasy players in competitive leagues are always looking for ways to gloat, but what happens when monetary gains and losses enter the equation?
Set aside the recent legal troubles involving the increasingly popular daily fantasy leagues, Draft Kings and Fan Duel (the popular betting sites are currently dealing with illegal gambling accusations amid a possible merger), and consider the moral implications of adding money to an activity that started as honest fun. When cash is wagered, and sometimes at large amounts, there is a risk of hoping for a game-ending injury — sometimes even openly. Take one look at fantasy football message boards across the internet, and it isn’t hard to find individuals praising injuries and berating poor play by their own team members.
It should be mentioned that typically fantasy football follows the weekly NFL schedule, as points are accumulated by real-life actions on the playing field. When money entered fantasy football, somewhere along the line, everything changed. Fantasy football was no longer a weekly occurrence; it switched to being an everyday thing. While much has been said about the difference between daily fantasy leagues and traditional gambling, the sheer ease of accessibility of wagering funds has impacted many lives. Like all risky financial endeavors, stories of fantasy football success are marketed on commercials, but the number of money losers vastly exceeds the fortunate ones.
Fantasy football has permeated the NFL climate with such ferocity that it’s almost impossible to imagine a time when fantasy football wasn’t a part of the game. It wasn’t that long ago that fans gathered for watch parties to support the players who actually wore identical uniforms, but it seems like a lifetime ago. Like many parts of life, money has the tendency to muddle the passion of being a football fan. Whether attention has been divided from the fandom passed down from generation to generation and dispersed across the league, or because the act of watching football has changed from the screen to social media feeds for updates, the fantasy football league has made a lasting mark on the NFL and its audience.
While there has always been negativity in football, fantasy football has pinpointed that harshness on the bodies of single individuals. Previously, fans rooted against a team as a whole, and now they focus their distaste on the name on the back of the jersey instead of the one across the front. The proliferation and popularity of the fantasy football league has increased widespread interest for fans, but perhaps it’s opened up the game to more scrutiny. As mentioned, sports are designed to gravitate different people together as a whole. Fantasy football operates on this principle, even though a portion of its pieces carry a misleading illusion.