When is it you admit you have a problem? When you can identify not only the starting running backs of each NFL team but also the back-ups? When you can go further down the depth chart? When, despite your prodigious knowledge of offensive players, you can barely recognize big name defenders?* When, after processing the horrific facts revolving around Ray Rice’s indefinite suspension, your response is to jump on the waiver wires to pick up his potential heir apparent? (Spoiler alert: I now own Justin Forsett in at least two leagues).
I have once again immersed myself in fantasy football this year, and it is hitting all the buttons that make me love the game in a big way. I told myself I would cut down the leagues I participate in – I’m still involved in four leagues, with varying levels of commitment and care.** Yet despite all this, something feels slightly off, like the entire enterprise is cocooning itself, preparing to burst into some new thing.
Maybe it’s the fact that I’ve been thinking a lot about football on a meta level lately, having just read Steve Almond’s excellent Against Football. I think he takes some of his points a step too far – I don’t believe we as a society would be more inclined toward political and social action absent the existence of the game, as there is always some shiny and ultimately frivolous distraction available – but they are well-stated and command engagement and further thought from any serious football fan.
The very existence of Against Football, along with the Ray Rice situation, and the mounting concern over head trauma suffered by the players, leaves me with the feeling that perhaps we are at peak football. The NFL remains at the height of its popularity, but the public perception of the sport seems to have shifted off of the on-the-field play almost entirely. The season has started, yet the league is currently most strongly associated with domestic abuse and loss of cognitive function.***
So yeah, I’m still having fun with fantasy this year – I have really strong teams in a couple of leagues, and at least decent teams in the others. I took gambles high in the draft that seem to be paying off, taking top non-RB guys in the first rounds, like Calvin Johnson, Jimmy Graham, Aaron Rodgers, and Drew Brees, based on the theory that, once you got past about the first five or six running backs, the same value could be had from the second wave guys in the second or third rounds. I stayed away from relative dinosaurs like Steven Jackson, Andre Johnson, and Frank Gore, and went with younger players or guys with big play potential, like Giovanni Bernard, Cordarrelle Patterson, and Percy Harvin. So far these moves seem to be working out very well, with three week one victories. Even the sole loss wasn’t so bad, as it was by only 2 points, and owed more to a bad match-up for Aaron Rodgers and my idiotic decision to start the New Orleans Saints defense, who earned me a grand total of -7 points, than the overall composition of my team.
But mixed in with the happiness that a successful fantasy week brings is a heightened awareness that the commodities we track and trade in fantasy are not a pure abstraction. It’s partly abstraction, for sure – the “Cordarrelle Patterson” on my fantasy teams is not exactly the same as the human being named Cordarelle Patterson. But he is based on and intimately connected with him. Fantasy football is a bit like fan fiction with numbers, and just like X-Men fan fiction wouldn’t exist without the contributions of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Chris Claremont, John Byrne and countless other creators, fantasy football would not and could not exist without the NFL and its players.
As fantasy football participants we celebrate the players’ accomplishments, and you’ll never convince me that isn’t, on some level, a positive thing – to marvel at the spectacle and skill of high-level athletic achievement. But the fantasy system also encourages us to ignore everything else that goes into the equation. When a player is injured or suspended for some misconduct, it just means we plug in some other set of numbers, or that we go out and make an effort to pick up his back-up. We don’t have to consider that real person’s pain, or the pain he caused others, or the fairness and overarching message sent by the league’s drug policy, or any of those other things that remind us that this game has real participants, real winners and losers beyond the field itself. We don’t have to, but we should choose to.
*The only possible exception to this is cornerbacks – you need to know those match-ups when making the call on which wide receiver to sit and which to start.
** Not too varying, though. While there are many things in life I am able to glide through without much care or attention, fantasy football doesn’t seem to be one of them. Even in my least-cared-for league I still agonize over my roster and haunt the waiver wires pretty regularly.
*** The most telling evidence of this perception shift I’ve run across was Monday night’s episode of the twitter-infused pop culture mélange @Midnight, hosted by admitted sports ignoramus Chris Hardwick. When Hardwick brought up the new NFL season as a topic for the panel of comedians, each of the jokes centered on concussions and brain impairment. Granted, the episode was recorded just before the Ray Rice story took off in a big way, but I’m not sure being viewed primarily as an organization that is either incompetent or enabling on the issue of domestic violence is the way the NFL wants to distract from issues of player health.