Garry Winogrand
Garry Winogrand

It’s the opening game of the 2014 NFL season and I’m at Buffalo Wild Wings with friends. As always for such events, the restaurant is packed. It’s a good mix of Seahawks and Packers jerseys and the pregame atmosphere is already buzzing. It’s also 60 cents per wing tonight, and my friends and I take full advantage of the offer. Sweet BBQ, Parmesan Garlic, Honey BBQ, Asian Zing, and even a few Blazin’. The wings pile up but we eat slowly. After all, we’ve got three hours of good ol’ American football to keep us company.

As the game gets underway, I compulsively check my phone, following the ESPN FantasyCast app as well the live game on the twenty-odd screens around me. FantasyCast allows me to keep up with my fantasy football matchups, while the TVs allow me to follow the game in real time. I’m starting Jordy Nelson in one fantasy league and Aaron Rodgers in another. As a subtle sign of Packer-solidarity, I’m even wearing a green shirt.

It’s a slow first quarter, but four minutes before halftime the Packers finally get the first legitimate scoring opportunity of the game. First and goal at the two-yard line. The Packers fans at the table next to us are hushed, their greasy fingers crossed. The Seahawks fans, as usual, are loud and somewhat obnoxious. The ball is snapped. It’s handed off. A big pileup. Touchdown for Green Bay by… John Kuhn?

“God damnit,” my friend says. “Who the hell is Kuhn?”

I’m quietly disappointed. I’d been hoping for a short throw to Jordy Nelson, whom I “own” in two fantasy leagues.

But as the game wears on, Nelson’s performance improves. He begins the fourth quarter with an impressive fifteen-yard gain. Then he catches a short pass and turns it into a twelve-yard play. At this point I’m smiling and cheering along with the Packers fans next to us. Green Bay is finally stringing some plays together, slowly but surely marching down the field. When Nelson catches another pass, this time for a solid eleven-yard gain, I’m on my feet. I almost feel like a real Packers fan.

I began watching the NFL because of fantasy football. I was roped into my first fantasy league in high school when friends who actually knew something about football needed a spot filled. They figured I would be a halfway competent owner, talk a decent amount of trash, and ultimately lose to them when it mattered. Without knowing anything about football or its fantasy derivative, I somehow managed to win the league (shout out to Tom Brady who did it all for me).

After that initial victory, I was hooked. I still knew next to nothing about football, but the next year I began watching games, checking fantasy blogs, and stepping up my trash talk. Whenever I lost a game I reminded them who the reigning champion was. Whenever I won a game, I made sure they didn’t forget. Soon, our league became an intense battleground as we watched our friendly matches play out on a grand, national scale.

Though I like to think that my introduction to the NFL was somehow unique, my path to football has probably become more the norm than the exception. Since we’ve expanded my home league, two friends who hardly knew what a touchdown was have become religious fans. Both of them played for a year, did reasonably well, and enjoyed ridiculing less successful friends so much that they both came to the draft with folders full of rankings, scouting reports, and strategy articles the next year. According to a Bleacher Report article, this trend can also be observed on a national scale, as NFL viewership has increased by more than 10 percentage points in the last ten years, while fantasy football growth has been nearly commensurate. Every year, no matter the disappointments of previous seasons, my friends and I come back together to draft, talk trash, and watch football.

But fantasy football is doing more than changing our NFL viewing experiences. It may actually be changing the game itself. Fantasy football players love points. They love offense and scoring because those are the most relevant metrics for fantasy. And, coincidentally, over the past ten years (following robust fantasy football growth) the NFL has consistently created rules to make scoring easier and defending harder. Quarterbacks have become virtually untouchable; receivers are given preferential treatment; aggressive tackles with the head are illegal while equally dangerous chop blocks against defenseman are still legal. In short, the NFL is beginning to resemble fantasy football. Fantasy owners don’t care about defense; they care about offense, about scoring, about points. And that’s what the NFL is clearly encouraging.

These new rules, which seem designed to make scoring easier and fantasy owners happier, were especially noticeable last season, which set a new record for average points in the modern era. Even NFL players are noticing now, as Richard Sherman (who, admittedly, seems to have something to say about everything) remarked: “When the fantasy numbers need to be what they need to be, then the league needs to do what it needs to do to get it done… This is a money-driven league, so whatever sells the tickets is gonna sell the tickets.”

Fantasy football has become a booming industry for the NFL. This year, an estimated 25 million people will play fantasy football, generating billions in ad revenue, website and magazine subscriptions, league fees, and challenge games. Real football is slowly but surely becoming dependent on its fantasy derivative.

However, fantasy football’s effects for fantasy owners and the players we purport to “own” may actually be troubling.

In the opening game of the 2014 season, Eddie Lacy—a consensus top five fantasy pick—went down with a concussion. The reactions from Lacy owners were predictably bitter but surprisingly insensitive. Lacy is a real person playing for a real team suffering real brain trauma, but fantasy footballers quickly forgot this. He was relevant to them only as a virtual player, so they were only affected on a virtual level. Caught up in the heat of fantasy football, they quickly forgot about the reality of football—that players like Eddie Lacy suffer real brain damage, that the NFL estimates one in three players will develop brain trauma effects later on in life, and that this is an epidemic in professional football. Instead, they saw Lacy’s injury only as a fantasy football setback, a virtual loss.

One commenter lamented: “This is killing me. Losing a first round pick in week one for any amount of time is terrible.”

“Buy me dinner before you fuck me, Eddie Lacy,” another wrote.

This same disregard for reality in favor of the illusory world of fantasy football was evident in this year’s domestic violence scandals. This year’s second most popular fantasy football team name was “Beats by Ray,” punning on Ray Rice’s violence against his then-fiancée. Likewise, after reports were released of Adrian Peterson being charged with child abuse, numerous fantasy football articles touted him as an ideal “buy low” target. The idea was that with all the bad press his fantasy football stock would hopefully sink and you could get a stud running back for cheap.

Fantasy football allows us to delight in the beauties of the modern NFL game: big plays and big scores. But at the same time, it further distances us from the reality of football, from the traumatic injuries, from the on- and off-field violence, from the real people we pretend to “own.”

I’ve been guilty of this thoughtlessness myself. Sitting in the safety of my dorm room, it can be easy to delight in an opponent’s injury. It can be easy to think in terms of personal gain and loss, forgetting the lives I’m gambling with.

It’s week two of the 2014 NFL season, and I’m sitting in my dorm room. My laptop is propped open, streaming NFL RedZone. I regularly check my phone, alternating between my fantasy lineups and trash talk groupchats. It’s not a very elegant setup, but it’s functional. Just me, the Sunday games, and my fantasy football teams.

But disaster strikes early this Sunday. I watch as my star wide receiver, AJ Green, heads to the locker room in the first quarter. I compulsively check twitter for updates until the commentator seals my fate. “He’s out for the game,” he says. Apparently it’s turf toe, a ligament sprain too painful to play through.

The injury puts a damper on my Sunday football hype. I was counting on Green to put up big points against a weak Falcons’ secondary. Instead, whenever I check my fantasy matchup, I have a big goose egg staring back at me.

As the football Sabbath wears on, I realize my team is in poor shape. Other players put up decent scores, but not enough to top my opponent. By Sunday evening, it’s clear I need nothing short of a fantasy football miracle to rescue my team. I’m down twenty points and only have Brandon Marshall, Chicago Bears wide receiver, left to play. Listed as questionable, with many experts doubting he would suit up at all, I was not optimistic about my prospects.

At first, Marshall is barely involved in the game. A few inaccurate passes sail his way, but he fails to catch any of them. As the first half winds to a close, Marshall has achieved a single, measly point.

But then, with less than twenty seconds left in the half, Marshall displays the impressive athleticism that led me to draft him so early in the first place. Down 17-0 and facing a crucial third down, Bears QB Jay Cutler carelessly lofts the ball into the end zone. It’s a poor throw, aimed only in the general direction of Marshall, who’s covered by two defensemen. But in a single fluid motion, Marshall turns, leaps, and reaches with his right arm, hauling in the pigskin. Touchdown Chicago.

The impressive athleticism continues for the second half and Marshall hauls in two more touchdowns. Not only does he rescue Chicago from certain defeat, but he also rescues my fantasy team and I eke out a narrow victory.

Fantasy football gives me a stake in nearly every NFL game. I would surely have appreciated Marshall’s athletic prowess regardless of fantasy, but there’s something special about having a connection with a player that does well. Similar to watching your home team win a game, watching your fantasy players perform well gives you a certain mystical satisfaction. I identify with my fantasy players—I drafted them, traded them, chose them.

Fantasy football certainly adds a compelling, satisfying extra dimension to my NFL viewing experience. But recent events, from concussions to suspensions, have shaken my appreciation for that extra element. The joy of fantasy football comes from letting yourself be wholly enraptured by a game, by losing yourself in the illusion of owning and starting players. But letting fantasy football define real football can lead to troubling effects for “my” players and myself. If I don’t let fantasy football absorb me too fully, I may not be as ecstatic for Brandon Marshall’s great catches. But I also won’t be as angry at AJ Green’s toe ligaments, Eddie Lacy’s damaged brain, or Ray Rice’s legal mess.

So, this Sunday, I will again set up my stream of NFL RedZone and enjoy a full day of American football. But maybe this time I won’t check my phone as often. I won’t obsess over my fantasy players. I will just enjoy the game on its own terms.

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