Football Mania

Inside the minds of risk-taking players and die-hard fans.

What's Wrong with Fantasy Football?

Divided loyalties, stats mania, and true athletic excellence

Houston Texans running back Arian Foster is recovering from a hamstring injury, and hopes to be ready to take the field on opening day against the Indianapolis Colts. For those of you who aren't football fans, and even for many of you who are but aren't fans of the Texans or their divisional rivals, this may not be on your radar. However, apparently, there is another group of people who are very concerned about this injury--fantasy football players. Foster is one of the top running backs for fantasy teams, and his injury potentially hurts the chances of many who had taken him in their fantasy drafts leading up to the NFL season.

To those who were upset because of this, Foster had this to say on his Twitter account:

@ArianFoster  4 those sincerely concerned, I'm doing ok & plan 2 B back by opening day. 4 those worried abt your fantasy team, u ppl are sick

This morning, on ESPN's Mike and Mike in the Morning, there was a brief discussion about fantasy football with NFL Commissioner Robert Goodell, who praised it as a way that the game is bringing people together. While it may do this, which is in and of itself is a good thing, there are several criticisms of fantasy football I'd like to raise.

But first, a confession. I used to play fantasy football, for a few seasons, and I hated it. I hated it because I can be obsessively competitive about certain things, and for some reason I was obsessively competitive about fantasy football. I did make my league's championship game one year, but lost, so I don't think that my criticisms are just sour grapes. I remember being in the lead one weekend in the game, until the final moments of a Monday Night Football contest between Denver and someone else. My fantasy opponent had Rod Smith, who scored a meaningless (for the Broncos) TD at the end of the game in a Denver loss. But it was this score that pushed my opponent over the top, and I lost. This kind of thing would drive me crazy as a fantasy owner, but that is just part of the game.

Apart from these smaller issues that trouble obsessives like myself, I am bothered by some of fantasy football's consequences for fandom, and some of the views of sport that are latent--and sometimes not so latent--in fantasy football.

Fantasy football will, sooner or later, threaten to divide your loyalty as a fan. I grew up in Kansas City, and I am a big fan of the Chiefs. I hated it when the Chiefs would play against a team that had one of my fantasy players, because while I wanted the Chiefs to win I also wanted this opposing player to do well for the sake of my fantasy numbers.

Fantasy football also skews how you look at the game. I usually had some Chiefs on my fantasy roster, even though this wasn't always the best thing to do. What can I say, I went with my heart and not always my head. I recall a game in which Chiefs tight end Jason Dunn scored a touchdown, which was a rarity. I was happy, but also frustrated because Chiefs tight end Tony Gonzales was on my fantasy roster. Why Jason, and not Tony?!? As a Chiefs fan, the points matter, not who got them. In fact, as a fan you like to see the blocking tight end get a score once in a while. But as a fantasy owner, I did not like this at all.

More importantly, fantasy football contains a flawed view of athletic excellence. Fantasy football is both a cause and a symptom of individual statistics mania. A focus on individual statistics ignores the connections an individual athlete has with other athletes, coaches, and support staff. As sport philosophers Mark Holowchak and Heather Reid put it, "Removing an athlete's statistics from their competitive context is as artificial as removing athletes from their social communities. Because they isolate players from communities, statistics fail to capture true athletic excellence--especially in team sports" (Aretism, p. 101).

Athletic excellence is not fully captured, and is sometimes misrepresented, by statistics. For example, a quarterback might have a lower quarterback rating because he throws a meaningless interception via a Hail Mary pass at the end of the first half, while leading his team to a gritty 10-7 victory. Another quarterback might pile up the numbers after his team goes down by a few touchdowns simply because the opposing defense plays a little more softly with a big lead. For a more specific example, consider the battle for the NFL rushing title back in 1989. Kansas City Chiefs running back Christian Okoye led the league in rushing by 10 yards, with Lions RB Barry Sanders right behind him. Sanders could have gone in during the last minutes of a meaningless game against Atlanta in order to go for the rushing crown, but chose not to do so. Afterwards, he said, "When everyone is out for statistics--you know, inidividual fulfillment--that's when trouble starts. I don't want to ever fall victim to that." Sanders was of course one of the greatest backs in the history of the game. Was Okoye really better than Sanders that year?

There are many good things about fantasy football. It does bring people together, and it is a fun form of entertainment. However, I would be happy to see it die, and not only for the reasons stated here. I am also tired of seeing individual stats scroll by at the bottom of the screen while I hope for Jamaal Charles to break off one of his big runs for a score. And if it isn't Charles, then Thomas Jones or Dexter McCluster. I don't care who scores, I just want my team--the Kansas City Chiefs--to win.

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Football Mania