The Game Within the Game: The Unfortunate Mirroring Effects of Fantasy Football

mattclibanoff 10/16/17

Since its inception, the NFL has had a race problem. Whether discussing it through the lens of Colin Kaepernick's protests against police brutality or by taking a look at the racial disparity between players and owners, the issue has been well-documented. And although it's been exacerbated in recent years by Roger Goodell's many failings–so many, that it's hard to find a comprehensive list–and by a general societal shift towards racial-awareness, the trouble has always been there, lurking in the shadows. Whether or not the NFL will address these obvious problems remains to be seen, but as the league is lambasted from both the left and the right, there is a portion of the game that remains largely unexamined: fantasy football.

It might seem odd to discuss racial issues in a fantasy sport. The meta-game isn't regularly looked at with the same scrutiny as the rest of the NFL, but ESPN recently found themselves in hot water for a video they released in August, a few weeks prior to the NFL season. The video depicted a group–mostly male and entirely white–bidding on Odell Beckham Jr, while a fast-talking auctioneer waved his gavel. Although this left a bad taste in people's mouths, most were content to blame ESPN's writers for creating a sketch that would have been considered racist in 1959. What a lot of people aren't aware of, is that iterations of this sketch happen every August in fantasy leagues all across America. For the uninitiated, there are two types of fantasy drafts. Type one is the snake draft. This is the standard. League members take turns picking players until their roster is full. Players are ranked based on their projected stats. Type two is the auction draft. Each league member is given a budget and each player is ranked by a (usually fake) monetary value. Owners then bid on players.

There are obvious implications attached to auction drafting and they aren't particularly good. They look much worse when you take these statistics into consideration:

  1. 70% of the NFL is black
  2. Of the almost 60 million people who play the game within the game, almost 90% are white.
  3. The average household income of a fantasy football participant is close to $100,000 per year (half of all players are single).

As the auction draft continues to grow in popularity, the implicit racism of fantasy sports is becoming harder and harder to ignore. The mostly affluent, mostly white fantasy owners assign value and bid on mostly black players, many of whom used sports as means to escape poverty.

While auction drafts provide a vantage point from which to view fantasy football's racist underpinnings, they don't show the whole the story. The draft is only the beginning of the year and fantasy football tends to get more dehumanizing once the season is underway. Once players are "owned", they are treated similarly to the way race horses are, particularly when they're injured. Often times, when a player gets injured, his owner is having a terrible day, not because he feels any type of empathy, but because it will cost his team precious points. While the outcries over racism are legitimate, the fundamental problem with the drafting process is cosmetic. The fantasy season itself, with its uncanny ability to reduce living, breathing human beings into numbers on a screen is a far more sinister manifestation of the NFL's race issues.

Breakdown of ESPN standard scoring

It's important to acknowledge that fantasy owners don't participate in the meta-game with malicious intent. Rather, the game is played in a way that lends itself to the dehumanization of players. Owners often don't even watch their players' games. Instead, they check the scoreboard on their phone and see who is putting up the best numbers. Owners will even sometimes root for their opponent's players to get injured, hoping it will give them a competitive edge. For people who have never played fantasy football, that thought-process is a hard one to grasp, but there's no portion of the game that reminds owners that football is these players' livelihoods, or that the players have personal aspirations, or that their families are watching at home. In the closed-off world of fantasy sports, these narratives aren't particularly useful. It takes a concerted effort to look past the Yahoo Sports or ESPN phone app and see that the numbers on the cellphone screen correspond to real life events.

Fantasy football's niche but growing segment of sports media does little to nothing to alleviate this problem. Popular fantasy sports gurus such as Matthew Berry and Eric Karabell are quick to commiserate with fantasy owners when players get hurt. There's a strange disconnect when these injuries are described. The injuries happen to the players, but the fantasy sports media is quick to make the owners feel like the victims. For this reason, many players vocally disdain fantasy football.

👀wow you do realize a real person got injured and u wonder why players have issues with fantasy owners and some of those who cover it😡😡 https://t.co/hsxhaCIRZ2
— DeAngelo Williams (@DeAngeloRB) October 8, 2017

It's strange to think, but fantasy football is almost as divisive as the league it's modeled on. That being said, it's not going anywhere. The NFL sees it as a way to bring in new fans and as a way to provide a more immersive experience for its viewers. While some view it as a bastardization of the sport, shifting the focus towards single players rather than the team, almost 60 million people are involved in fantasy leagues. It's too late to put a lid on it. The questions that need to be asked of fantasy football moving forward are those involving rhetoric. Telling people to stop playing won't work and in actuality, there's nothing wrong with focusing on stats or betting on players' performances. The issue comes from the way people–from analysts to fantasy team managers–discuss the players. A more humanistic approach to the world of fantasy football is necessary. Players aren't race horses. They aren't numbers on a screen. They're human beings. And their occupation as professional athletes and entertainers doesn't preclude them from viewing their own worlds with the same sense of acuity as you view yours.


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