A little over a week ago, Green Bay Packers tight end Martellus Bennett tweeted what many football players have been thinking for years. “I don’t care about your fantasy football team,” he announced. “Thanks! Sincerely real life football guy.”
Bennett’s comments drew sharp criticism from some fantasy experts, who were quick to note that fantasy helps to pad his pockets. “Gotta recognize how fantasy grows your visibility/reach,” wrote Liz Loza of Yahoo Sports. ESPN’s Matthew Berry further reminded Bennett that fantasy football “is a big driver of the huge interest that allows you to be paid $$$$.”
They are right. Fantasy sports is now a powerful industry that claims 21 percent of Americans as participants. Folks can’t turn on their television sets or log onto their computers without seeing ads for fantasy sports. An entire SiriusXM satellite radio channel is dedicated to fantasy gaming, and even those who don’t play can enjoy FX’s The League, a sitcom about a group of friends who take fantasy football to the extreme.
But Bennett exposed the central tension between athletes and the billion-dollar industry that profits from them. As football has become more profitable, its players have become more of a commodity.
So Bennett is also right. Many fantasy participants care little about him as an individual. If they did, they may have taken interest in his support of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the national anthem or Bennett’s refusal to visit the White House with his teammates in protest of President Trump’s policies. Instead, fantasy players care about touchdowns, yards and receptions. Bennett’s helmet protects his head, but his face mask renders him anonymous and erases his humanity. He is literally a number.
The financial growth of the NFL and the expansion of its brand, thanks in no small part to the increasing popularity of Internet fantasy gaming, have afforded fans the opportunity to interact with the sport they love. Fans are more invested in the business side as well, winning and losing cash each week on legalized gambling. Yet the byproduct of these financial and technological developments is to dehumanize the players and ultimately distance fans from athletes they once admired for their accomplishments on and off the field.
Football wasn’t always such an economic powerhouse. In fact, the idea for fantasy football itself came from a desire to generate enthusiasm for the sport. In 1962, football lagged behind baseball in popularity. In Oakland, Calif., especially, fans were suffering through yet another miserable season that would end in a 1-13 finish by the Raiders.
Bill “Wink” Winkenbach, who held a minority ownership stake in the team, had an idea to inject some excitement into a disappointing fall with his friends by forming a new league made up of players on actual AFL and NFL rosters. Each of the eight teams would draft 20 players, including two quarterbacks, four running backs, four wide receivers or tight ends, two place-kickers and four defensive players. Team managers were awarded fake cash for scoring plays: 50 cents for rushing touchdowns, 25 cents for touchdown receptions and so on. The manager with the most cash at the end of the season was crowned champion.
And with that the Greater Oakland Professional Pigskin Prognosticators League (GOPPPL) — the first fantasy football league — was born.
From there, the new game spread quickly by word-of-mouth, first to Andy Mousalimas’s King’s X bar in Oakland and then to other bars and workplaces. Yet, despite the demand for fantasy, getting the scores and stats remained a formidable challenge. Those who couldn’t wait for the morning newspaper pestered reporters with frequent phone calls demanding to know how many touchdowns George Blanda had thrown or for how many scores Jim Brown had rushed.
All of that changed in the mid-1990s with the Internet.
Beginning in 1997, fans could set up their leagues online via RotoNews, Commissioner.com (now part of CBS Sports) or other sites to follow the stats in real time. In 1999, Yahoo became the first media company to offer free fantasy gaming, bringing even more participants into the fold. ESPN’s SportsCenter, which first aired in 1979 but exploded in popularity in the 1990s, fed the growing fantasy fever by highlighting the very plays that interested fantasy gamers: long touchdown passes, interceptions returned for scores and game-winning field goals. Over the past decade, Daily Fantasy Sports has further transformed the industry, allowing players to construct new lineups every week and win cash as well as bragging rights.
Today, an estimated 59.3 million people play fantasy sports in the United States and Canada, with each player spending an average of $556 per year on league dues and online entry fees. Fantasy football has been a godsend for the NFL, driving up interest and revenue.
But fantasy is not simply a game. Rather, it reflects darker reality behind professional football that has reduced men to numbers. Social-justice activism, injuries such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy and crimes such as domestic violence and sexual assault take a back seat to targets and touches.
This all makes sense, given that fantasy players are whiter and more affluent than the population as a whole. In this world, fantasy football is Oz and the athletes the Tin Men, robbed of their hearts and humanity.
The dehumanization of football players, a majority of them black, is not confined to fantasy sports. Rather, it reflects broader changes in a game in which massive revenue generated by television, Internet and advertising dollars have allowed owners and general managers to employ state-of-the-art technology to find the perfect player for each position. Teams — real and fantasy — rely on metrics to construct the most balanced rosters.
Around the same time that the GOPPPL was founded, specialization became the norm in professional football. In the game’s early years, many players excelled at multiple positions. Red Grange, “The Galloping Ghost,” dominated in the 1920s and early 1930s on both sides of the ball, as a running back and as a defensive back. Hall of Famer Sammy Baugh played three positions in the 1940s: quarterback, defensive back and punter. As late as the 1960s, Lou Groza kicked field goals and protected his quarterbacks as an offensive tackle.
Over time, however, technology, coupled with the financial capital to pay for scouts, made it easier to measure and quantify talent. Players were increasingly groomed for specific jobs on the field — as left guards, nickel corners and gunners on special teams. Teams no longer needed two- or three-way players if they could identify and prepare athletes for one position on the assembly line. Numbers overshadowed the names.
Few developments have exacerbated this shift more than the creation of the NFL Combine, which began in 1982 as a way to measure player health, speed, strength, intelligence and social skills. It emerged out of a desire by the owners to evaluate prospects in a more streamlined and systematic manner. Aspiring NFL players are assigned numbers and put through four days of tests, including the 40-yard dash, vertical jump, position-specific drills and interviews. Quarterbacks are given the Wonderlic, an aptitude screening that assesses an individual’s learning and problem-solving abilities. Like fantasy, the players are quantified and categorized.
Non-guaranteed contracts, unique to the NFL, also allow teams to act promptly on their assessment of players. It is common for teams to sign athletes to long contracts only to release them a year later. Former Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Connor Barwin was unceremoniously cut this offseason despite his strong presence in the locker room and in the community. Fantasy managers replaced Barwin, too, with the click of a mouse.
Martellus Bennett may not care about fantasy football, but he and other players have largely benefited from the financial behemoth that the NFL has become — and from the numeric system that has turned their athletic talents into lucrative contracts.
Fantasy football and the real-life version encourage an illusory engagement with football in which we stare at the numbers and curse at players when their concussions cost us a fantasy title instead of worrying about their long-term health. It encourages us to overlook the racism that players encounter when they’re not filling up our score sheets. It makes us forget that the players are men whose lives extend beyond the field. So go ahead and check stats obsessively. Just don’t lose sight of the players’ humanity.