How Deep Your Fantasy (Football)

Moral absenteeism is part of the joy of being a football fan. You are for your guys and against the other guys — which means, for instance, indifference to or even pleasure in another human’s physical incapacitation. But this questionable posture does not exactly capture the labile moral dynamics of fantasy football, where my allegiances are so widely spread and so thinly constituted that they literally change not only week to week, but also play to play. As I sit here on an early January weekend, awaiting kick-off for a playoff game and reflecting back on the now derelict dreams of another fantasy season that absorbed many more hours of than it gave back, I feel compelled to take stock of my commitments to this particular kind of imaginative moral economy.

I love watching fantasy football because it affords me the opportunity to navigate several connected but discrete plots that are unfolding simultaneously. I am not cheering for a team; rather, I am cheering for and against individual players — players who quite often play on the same team. I am invested in quarterback Cam Newton’s success because he is a member of one of my virtual football teams. But while cheering for Newton’s success, I am also cheering against the success of Newton’s rookie wide receiver, Curtis Samuel — and perhaps also cheering for the success of the defense Newton is playing against. Having these multiple, and at times directly competing, interests to balance in my mind on any one play often feels like an object lesson on managing conflict and cooperation. In this context, rooting for fantasy football outcomes is not a demonstration of Kant’s Categorical Imperative, but rather an exercise in creating enough moral ambiguity that I can alibi my rapidly switching allegiances.

Of course, there are deep and abiding moral issues involved in watching football, fantasy or no, that have nothing to do with abstract moral dynamics. The reality of these moral issues has never been more evident than in today’s game. The research on CTE is impossible to ignore. When my wife asks me if I care that so-and-so favorite player is risking their long-term health by playing the game I love to watch, I usually respond something to the effect of “they knew what they signed up for.” Indeed, this is almost the exact response that many NFL players give, including the Pittsburgh Steelers’ safety Mike Mitchell. Asked recently to comment on NFL efforts to reduce helmet to helmet collisions, Mitchell quipped “You got to know what the risk is when you sign-up.”

This flippant attitude strikes me as unsustainable, especially in the context of President Trump’s recent use of almost these exact words in response to the grief expressed by Army Sgt. LaDavid Johnson’s widow (Myeisha Johnson) over her husband’s tragic death on a murky anti-terrorism patrol in Niger.

The logic manifested in the turn of phrase “he knew what he signed up for” neatly connects military sacrifice to the vernacular world of football fans — a world dominated by military metaphors about controlling space, infiltrating enemy territory, and demonstrating offensive firepower. One of the most often repeated words in a television broadcast of a football game is blitz, a term of art borrowed, in 1959, directly from World War II battlefields.

President’s Trump’s own efforts to frame national anthem protests as assaults on the military is not only dog-whistle politics, it is a shrewd recognition of how the language Americans use to describe war and football are deeply connected in the national psyche. The disturbing implication of this linguistic connection in the national imaginary is the disposability of the bodies that do the fighting/playing for us. “Next man up” is as common a phrase as any you will hear coming from an NFL Head Coach, and its rhetorical elision of the man down’s humanity and personhood is rarely if ever given a second thought by the media. As Trump’s position on anthem protests makes clear, these are bodies that are meant to be seen, but not so much heard.

When, earlier this season, the quixotic Green Bay Packers Tight End, Martellus Bennett, got into a Twitter spat with the ESPN Fantasy Football writer, Matthew Berry, it was over precisely this question of disaggregating football players as human beings from football players as statistical avatars of fan engagement with the game. “I don’t care about your fantasy football team. Thanks! Sincerely real life football guy,” Bennett tweeted on September 1, 2017. Berry’s defensive reaction betrayed his desire for players such as Bennett to either play along, as it were, or keep their opinions to themselves. “Considering FF is a big driver of the huge interest that allows you to be paid $$$,” Berry bloviated “maybe not be a jerk about it either?” Bennett’s response was equally telling, “I’d much rather have fans of Martellus Bennett the man, than Martellus Bennett, the TE.” What would it mean to be a fan of the “man” Martellus Bennett? Can I cheer his social platforms independent of my interest in his Red Zone target ratio?

The language most fantasy players use to describe their relationship to NFL football players reveals similar tensions. Sit in any sports bar of a Sunday afternoon and you will hear multiple people refer to so-and-so player as someone who they “own” on their fantasy team. Of course, that’s a huge part of the allure of playing fantasy football, the idea that you own the outcomes because you have chosen certain players to represent you. The casual slippage into the language of ownership transforms “real life football guys” into spectacular proxies of fan’s vicarious pleasure.

No wonder there is a reaction when these abstracted images of our football acumen start talking back to us — about racial inequality and our potential complicity in it, for instance. The whole language of ownership in sports and analyzing the ways that it subtly reinforces racial and social hierarchies that uncomfortably mimic master-slave relations was the subject of the basketball player Draymond Green’s address to Harvard University recently. Green argues, convincingly, that we should be talking about equity not ownership.

So if I reform my language, can I still enjoy my vicarious fantasy pleasures?

There are few things in this world more compelling to me than a ball in flight. That brief suspension offers a narrative arc that, though generic, promises a world of surprise endings. But the romance of the ball’s flight is only sustained if the end point of that ball’s flight matters, in whatever way.

The pleasure I find in fantasy football, over say regular football, is in large part tied to the idea that every play can have value — even if the outcome of the game is no longer in question. Fantasy investment in a player means that as long as that player is still on the field, the ball’s flight still has meaning.

For a person who watches around 15 hours a week of football, that matters. I want to squeeze in as many romantic excursions into the compression and expansion of time as possible. Otherwise, how can I account for an amount of time that justifiably could be spent on a second job? As an avid sports fan, you cheer for the laundry and the logo. But as an avid fantasy fan, you are giving yourself an excuse to watch many more games than you would as a team fan. I desperately want to keep this space of abstract dreaming and vicarious pleasure alive in my life. So do millions of other sports and fantasy sports fans — which makes it no surprise that very few of them want politics to encroach into this sacred space.

The modern NFL is something of a white whale — the subject of endless fan obsession and an object of extreme violence from which endless profits can be extracted for the market. It is also, in all probability, the most thoroughly visually documented activity in human history. Fans have a level of intimacy with modern NFL players that they are afforded with few other people in their lives. And yet all this access and intimacy—all this time spent up close and personal with players — has not created wide spread empathy for the men behind the football masks.

Why is that and what does it have to do with the problem of representation? If fantasy football is at its core about imaginative extension of the self, why are those extensions so limited? Why can so many fans create the empathy necessary to wince when someone is hit on the field, but not to listen when they speak about social justice? To get dusty-eyed about a player’s childhood of want but glazed over about their current feelings on race in America? If fans could but “strike, strike, through the mask” might they find that “little lower layer” where human and avatar are of a reasoning piece?

In a famous speech describing his pursuit of Moby Dick as a kind of search for the deeper, hidden, meaning of existence, Captain Ahab asks: “How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me.” Ahab eschews economic concerns and transforms the Pequod’s journey into a romantic, if tragic, quest for truth. I am not sure what truth my own obsession with football can reveal, but I am willing turn my fantasy excursions across its domain into a more personal romantic search for meaning. The best place to start would be to listen to what the real players I draft for my virtual team have to say about the world outside of football.

Jacob Rama Berman: Passionate about Pickling, the  Packers, and 19th Century Romanticism