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Big Play

My rookie season in fantasy football

Last September, I sat at a sports bar on the edge of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, sipping a house margarita and watching a man violently convulse. Tua Tagovailoa, the Miami Dolphins’ twenty-four-year-old star quarterback, had just been sacked by three-hundred-twenty-pound Cincinnati Bengals’ tackle Josh Tupou. And he wasn’t getting up.

Tagovailoa’s arms were clenched in the eerie, unnatural pose technically termed the Asymmetric tonic neck reflex but known colloquially as the “fencing response” because of its similarity to the position of a fencer at-the-ready. The fencing response has become a sure sign of trauma to the brainstem; for the second time in less than a week, Tagovailoa was injured. The Kezar Pub went pin-drop quiet as he was carted off the field. The broadcasters—in this case, Amazon, recent entrants into the televised pro football game after purchasing the rights to Thursday Night Football for an estimated $1 billion a year—replayed the injury over and over.

Watching this immensely powerful man in the throes of intense and potentially fatal agony, a heinous thought creeped across my margarita-muddied mind. What, I wondered, are the fantasy implications of this horrific incident?

Fantasy football is America’s most popular made-up sport. Popularized in the early 1990s as a phone-in game called “Pigskin Playoff,” it’s a dorky adjunct to watching professional football. Participants draft imaginary teams of real players from the actual NFL and are awarded points based on the week-to-week performance of the athletes on their roster.

Few things can make or break a fantasy season like the real-world health of your players.

Like comic books, video games, and basically every other geeky pastime, fantasy football has exploded into the mainstream since its humble beginnings. ESPN and the NFL Network now display stats of “fantasy” performances alongside the actual numbers. Some broadcasters even have programming dedicated to the fantasy prospects of various players. Podcasts and YouTube channels mulling weekly fantasy fortunes abound. I like to imagine the real pundits paid to talk about actual football treat their fantasy counterparts much as jocks treat dweebs in high school movies: jamming them into lockers, holding them upside down by their ankles and shaking them for lunch money, administering swirlies in the ESPN men’s room, etc.

Nevertheless, a 2021 survey showed that some forty million Americans play in fantasy football leagues. And this season, I joined their ranks.

The invitation came from a friend, and not a moment too soon. I was on the hunt for a new hobby, and, whether I knew it or not, desperately in need of some post-lockdown socialization. I longed for a place where I could chat about sports, crack juvenile dick-and-fart jokes, and generally hang out in a new group chat and bust balls with a dozen other likeminded wiseacres. The “Big Balls Little Penis League” welcomed me with open arms.

As a casual fan of gridiron football—familiar with a few teams and rosters, passably knowledgeable about which teams were good and which were bad—fantasy was a crash course. To be at all competitive, you must acquire a fairly rigorous knowledge of basically every offensive player in the entire league and their whole statistical outlay: from receiving to rushing yards, from completions to ball control (fumbles result in negative points) to their relative risk for injury. Who’s a “stud”? Who’s a “fraud”? Who’s “eating” this week?

For me, this knowledge translated into a deeper appreciation of the game itself. I went from watching one or two matchups to half the calendar. Players I was previously glad to ignore demanded my attention, as they were now members of my fantasy squad. Forget the Eagles, the Bills, the 49ers, and other teams to which I felt some natural affinity. My fate was with the Cleveland Browns’ mighty running back Nick Chubb and his tree-trunk thighs, with the unfussy and generally reliable pass game of the Seahawks’ quarterback Geno Smith, or (for one week only) with the Indianapolis Colts’ breakout rookie wide receiver Alec Pierce. I learned the difference between a nickelback and a dimeback, nurtured half-formed enmities for certain quarterbacks (Tom Brady, Dak Prescott, and Aaron Rodgers a.k.a. Fraudgers), and acquainted myself with the manners and styles of “Peyton and Eli”: two adult male theater kids with faces like milk bags who, once upon a time, were champions of the game.

I became, in due course, a legitimate, even an obsessive, football fan. Meaning that I could more-or-less capably keep up a conversation with other barflies during games without having to excuse myself to men’s room to Google stuff on my telephone. But I still found myself glued to this second screen: impatiently fiddling with the fantasy sports app that was forever open, awaiting a telltale vibration announcing the latest BIG PLAY. Scores became less important to me than moonshot passes, long yardage receptions, forced fumbles and, especially, injuries. Indeed, few things can make or break a fantasy season like the real-world health of your players.

Fantasy football is something of a misnomer. As a cinematic or literary category, fantasy is typically a highly imaginative affair: the province of faeries, dragons, elves, orcs, hobbits, and all manner of goofs and snarks. It is, in other words, unreal, and altogether separate from reality, as it is commonly experienced.

Fantasy sports, however, deal not with the imaginary, but the real. Specifically, the measurable, statistical real. Watch a football game, and you’ll see athletes performing at the apex of human ability, routinely performing physical feats that beggar the belief of the average couch potato. Open your fantasy app, and, in place of such displays, you’ll see a procession of numbers: +0.04 points per yard, +6 for a TD, -1 for an interception. In a given fantasy league, the player who has accumulated the most points at the end of a match wins the week, and the player with the most weekly wins takes the whole season. In their triumph, the multidimensional exploits of professional athletes are flattened into datasets. So: Where’s the “fantasy,” exactly?

Certainly nothing about fantasy football invites imaginative identification with the athletes themselves. What it conjures is not the sporting life of the jock, but the mental life of his boss. Fantasy football casts the user in the role of bureaucrat: an armchair general manager, developing rosters, pairing complementary players, and accounting for how their strengths and weaknesses will reveal themselves in a weekly matchup. By this logic, a dislocated knee, concussion, or torn anterior cruciate ligament becomes just another numeral to be managed. The whole affair is a secondary, virtual skein pulled over the crunchy, sweaty, meatspace of the physical sport.

It also feels like training wheels for gambling, and many of the early fantasy football concerns—like Draftkings and FanDuel—have since moved into the legal sports betting space, blanketing networks with ads that have successfully normalized what was until recently regarded mostly as a degenerate hobby. The two pastimes have become so entwined that users can now wager specifically on fantasy outcomes: betting not on actual stats or scores, but on the accumulation of points awarded by the fantasy football algorithm. It’s a weird, super-mediation on an already mediated experience, which pushes the viewer further away from the action on the field and rewards them, now even financially, for conceiving of the game and its players as numbers running down a ledger.

For the purveyors of such entertainment, the reward is obvious. Fantasy football alone is valued as a $70 billion industry: that’s more than the GDP of Panama, and puts it not too far behind the global sports betting industry, which has an estimated annual take of nearly $84 billion. For Draftkings, FanDuel, ESPN, other entrants of the Big Play industry, and the NFL itself, keeping viewers locked in stat-land is serious business.

But fantasy is more than just a revenue stream. It practically constitutes its own psychology of football fandom. Participants are asked at once to over-identify with players and to regard them at an even further distance. This strange combination of detachment and hyper-involvement no doubt redounds to the benefit of a league that is increasingly also in the business of rebuffing legitimate criticism.

For any halfway-sensitive person, watching professional football at all requires considerable cognitive dissonance. There’s the racism: while black players dominate the front lines, coaching and managerial positions are conspicuously Caucasian in composition. There are the disciplinary concerns around player conduct: assaults and rafts of DUI charges are only nominally punished by the league in the form of suspensions and slap-on-the-wrist fines that most of the multimillionaire players can easily afford. And then there’s arguably the largest elephant in the room: the high-impact violence. Specifically, the lingering effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which is shown to result in players who repeatedly concuss. CTE is linked to increased mental and behavioral disorders, including suicidal ideation and an increased propensity for violence. The number of NFL players diagnosed with or suspected of having CTE, living and dead, is so extensive as to warrant its own Wikipedia entry.

For the fantasy manager, however, these concerns can take a backseat to more pressing issues of fine-tuning one’s roster. Case in point: Tua Tagovailoa, contorted on the field in September, his brain rattling inside of his skull. In my case, Tagovailoa’s concussion sank the prospects of one of my star wide receivers, the Dolphins’ Jaylen Waddle. A few weeks after this, I was disturbed to find myself halfway hoping that some injury would befall the Ravens’ running back Kenyan Drake so that his performance would be hamstrung, and I’d stand a better chance of winning my weekly matchup. As I put it to the “Big Balls, Little Penis League” group chat, only partly joking, “Fantasy is making me a worse person.” Put another away: I was thinking like a football GM.

The mental work of limning fantasy with reality is the very essence of football fandom.

Because in forcing you to regard these athletes as objects—datasets to be swapped in and out, based on ever-evolving projections and statistical tweaks—fantasy captures precisely how NFL commissioners and owners think of their players. Tagovailoa had already suffered a nasty hit in an earlier game against Buffalo. At the time, commentators speculated that he was rushed back into action to protect the team’s prospects. Sure, he had cleared the league’s “concussion protocol.” But those protocols are themselves suspect; they always favor the interests of the team, and the NFL, over the health and well-being of players. Real managers, like their fantasy counterparts, are trained to see athletes with lives and families and futures as line items on a profit-and-loss dataset.

Untangling the knotty logic and even knottier ethics of fantasy football forces you to consider that the sport, around which the whole of American culture orbits for eighteen-or-so Sundays, is unjustifiably dehumanizing. And from there, to chew over the idea that this system of violence and exploitation undergirds all sports, entertainment, culture, and other spoils of the global capitalist order. The mental work of limning fantasy with reality is the very essence of football fandom. Is the feeling of sharing triumphs and defeats in common with an imagined fellowship of bejerseyed zealots worth it? For many, many millions of people, it is.

Because this grinding mental combine would be pointless, and exhausting, if football itself were not mind-bogglingly entertaining. Moral misgivings are too easily tempered on any given Sunday by the sport’s strategic depth and tendency to showcase exceptional athleticism. Pro football, perhaps more than any other sport, provides those dumbfounding moments that create sports fans. Watching the Vikings’ wide receiver Justin Jefferson defy gravity and snag an impossible-seeming catch; cheering for Chiefs’ tight end Travis Kelce as he breaks like sixteen tackles on the path of a forty-six-yard touchdown; scooping my jaw off the floor when Eagles’ safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson intercepts a bomb pass launched by the dreaded Dak Prescott . . . it is truly rousing and so obviously, plainly impressive. As the novelist Frederick Exley wrote, football is “an island of directness in a world of circumspection.”

Exley, it should be mentioned, was subsequently institutionalized as the result of a mental breakdown precipitated in part by his maniacal New York Giants fandom. As for me? I finished dead last in the “Big Balls, Little Penis League.” For my efforts, I was rewarded with a digital trophy, depicting a cartoon coil of feces peeking above the brim of a toilet bowl which was encircled with flies. It was a funny reward, befitting the stinkiness with which I had conducted myself in my rookie season as a fantasy manager. My pride was a little banged up, but that’s about the extent of the injuries in fantasyland.

Tua Tagovailoa, meanwhile, would hit his head again on Christmas day, in a match against the Green Bay Packers. He was once more shuffled into the NFL’s doctor-supervised concussion protocol, effectively ending his season. But shortly after the Dolphins, headed up by rookie quarterback Skylar Thompson, were routed in Super Wild Card Weekend by the Buffalo Bills, Dolphins management assured fans that their top prospect would return: “We fully expect him back next year,” GM Chris Grier told the press, “100 percent, ready to go.” In response, an anchor on ESPN’s Monday Night Football broadcast chirped, “That’s great news!”

In the group chat, the mood was a bit grimmer. As a pal put it bluntly after sharing the news: “They’re gunna kill him.”