Mark Glassman is a journalist based in New York.
There are many good reasons to avoid drafting a player onto your fantasy football team. He might get limited playing time. He could have a nagging injury or a tough schedule ahead of him. Or he might not be particularly good at football. But put all that aside and consider this: What if you’re just uncomfortable cheering for his success?
That’s my problem with Ray Rice. By most measures, Rice is a dependable back with significant fantasy value. He’s averaged 1,145 yards rushing over the past five years and has been an important part of the Ravens’ passing game. A hip injury and some extra weight hampered his production last season, but reports suggest that he’s healed up and trimmed down. Now, he’s projected to be taken in the fifth or sixth round of most fantasy drafts, fairly low for a primary running back. He could end up being a steal, even taking into account his two-game suspension to start the year.
The reason for that suspension, of course, is the problem. In February, a video surfaced implicating Rice in an assault on his fiancee, now his wife, that appears to have left her unconscious. Grainy surveillance footage shows Rice dragging Janay Palmer’s body out of an elevator in an Atlantic City casino. In May, Rice pleaded not guilty to aggravated assault and later settled the case by agreeing to enter a pretrial intervention program. The NFL came under heavy criticism in July for suspending Rice for only two games, and in the new, tougher guidelines against domestic violence that league Commissioner Roger Goodell sent to team owners Thursday, he admitted that “we allowed our standards to fall below where they should be.”
I don’t know exactly what Rice did to Palmer in that casino, but I know I can’t root for him anymore — or put him on my team.
The great freedom of fantasy football is that you don’t have to root for anyone in particular. Unlike your family, which you’re born into, or your home team — which you cannot discard, no matter how far away you move from Miami, Dad — your fantasy team is entirely under your control. So after the Rice incident, I began to consider the idea of a socially responsible draft, in which I would choose only players whose behavior I deemed morally sound or at least not entirely reprehensible. Just as socially responsible investors avoid companies whose practices conflict with their views, I, the socially responsible fantasy owner, could pass over players whose off-field actions I didn’t condone.
I realize this is a rather subjective exercise, and I don’t claim vast expertise in football or ethics. I’ve been playing fantasy football since 2009, and I’m the defending champion in one of my leagues (though I’m sure I just jinxed myself). I follow ESPN fantasy guru Matthew Berry on Twitter and own a signed copy of his book, but I don’t have an ESPN Insider account, and I read only about a third of the e-mails I get from numberFire, the sports-data-analysis service. As for morality, I went to Hebrew school and have at times read the Ethicist column in the New York Times Magazine.
With those credentials, I started by looking up the NFL’s top 200 fantasy players for the upcoming season, according to the rankings published on NFL.com. I sifted through news stories about each player, looking for red flags. (I skipped defenses and special teams because individual players rotate in and out of those units, and in most fantasy leagues you don’t draft defensive players but rather a team’s entire defense.) I recorded any questionable incident I found on a spreadsheet, then judged each player on whether those incidents repelled me enough to hold them out of my draft.
Some decisions were straightforward. Given my reaction to the Rice case, I decided to cut any player associated with domestic violence. That meant scratching off top-tier wide receivers Dez Bryant and Brandon Marshall. Bryant was arrested after allegedly hitting his mother in 2012. Although charges were later dismissed, Bryant attended a rally against domestic violence last year where he was contrite and said that he was “done with domestic abuse.” Marshall has been arrested multiple times after domestic violence incidents and disputes. That he has been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder may help account for his behavior, but it does not make cheering him on much easier.
Other cases were less clear-cut. For instance, Atlanta running back Steven Jackson was named in a domestic violence complaint in 2010, accused of beating up his then-pregnant ex-girlfriend the previous year, but he was cleared because there was insufficient evidence to pursue the case. The law didn’t condemn him. Should I? I finally ditched him, even though he’s a three-time Pro Bowler. I decided to err on the side of caution; during the season I just don’t want to have to think about what my RB2 might have done to his ex.
I also crossed off any player ever accused of sexual assault. That includes Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who has as many Super Bowl rings (two) as he does sexual assault allegations. The first alleged incident took place at a golf resort in Lake Tahoe in 2008. The second happened in the restroom of a Georgia nightclub in 2010. No charges were filed, but the NFL suspended him for six games in 2010 for violating the league’s personal-conduct policy. He violated mine, too — I’m just not comfortable drafting him.
Peyton Manning, the league’s top-ranked quarterback, has a far more family-friendly image than Roethlisberger. He sells Buicks , DirecTV subscriptions and Papa John’s pizzas . (Roethlisberger used to sell beef jerky, until his deal was terminated over one of the sexual assault accusations.) However, an incident from Manning’s days at the University of Tennessee gave me some pause about drafting him. In 1996, a trainer accused Manning of placing his naked buttocks on her head. Manning maintained that he was mooning another student, and in a book he later dismissed the incident as “crude maybe, but harmless.” I have no idea what happened because I was in high school about 800 miles away, but that accusation — and the image it leaves in my head whenever I see Manning — was enough to kick the 2013 fantasy point-total leader out of my draft. (The trainer soon left Tennessee with a $300,000 settlement from the school, and a defamation suit she brought against Manning was settled in 2003.)
Any player charged with driving under the influence was also out. Putting pedestrians and other drivers at risk is unacceptable. This rule barred guys such as Tampa Bay receiver Vincent Jackson, Miami running back Knowshon Moreno and Denver kicker Matt Prater. (Too bad: Prater had been a high-ranked fantasy kicker heading into this season until he was suspended for four games for drinking after his DUI.) I had some sympathy for Pittsburgh running back Le’Veon Bell, who told his arresting officer that he “didn’t know you could get a DUI for being high.” It’s hard to punish that kind of ignorance, but then it’s hard to root for it, too.
Most disappointing was having to cross off Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch. Lynch, a projected first-round pick in most fantasy drafts this year, was arrested for DUI in 2012 and pleaded guilty to a traffic violation in a 2008 hit-and-run. Yet expelling him was tough. Lynch was on one of my teams two years ago, and he helped carry us in the thrilling final week of my fantasy season, rushing for 111 yards and a touchdown and catching another score. Still, that same year he could have killed someone because he acted irresponsibly. He had to go.
I also banned players who had publicly used racial slurs or made homophobic remarks. That rule made short work of Philadelphia wide receiver Riley Cooper , Dolphins wideout Mike Wallace , New England tight end Rob Gronkowski , Buffalo running back C.J. Spiller , Washington receiver DeSean Jackson and Chicago tight end Martellus Bennett . As a Dolphins fan, it was a little upsetting to cut Wallace loose, but knocking out Gronkowski more than made up for it.
Baltimore receiver Torrey Smith left me torn. In January, he posted a photo of a man wearing pink socks on Instagram with the caption, “Look at this queen,” but he insisted in a tweet that he “wasn’t being offensive” and denied being homophobic. I don’t know what Smith’s true feelings are about gay people, but he exercised poor judgment regardless. He’s out of my draft.
Though I don’t regard them as severely as physically hurting others or displaying prejudice, lying and cheating offenses also counted against players. Denver wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders is projected to be a top-25 player at his position this year, but he faked an injury against Cincinnati in 2012, so he fell off my draft board. Carolina quarterback Cam Newton was a scratch because he cheated on coursework at the University of Florida before transferring to Auburn. And Indianapolis receiver Hakeem Nicks was a no-go after having been found guilty of academic fraud at the University of North Carolina.
Several high draft picks had been cited for getting drunk and rowdy, but I struggled over whether to exclude guys whose stupid behavior didn’t appear to harm anyone. New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning was jailed for public drunkenness and disorderly conduct while at the University of Mississippi. (The Mannings, ladies and gentlemen.) I don’t want to condone public drunkenness, but no one was reported hurt, and there’s not much to do in Oxford.
In 2010, Detroit wide receiver Golden Tate, then with Seattle, snuck into a high-end donut shop at 3 a.m. and ate a few treats. The police gave him a warning for trespassing. I don’t want to speculate too much about the forces that simultaneously sparked Tate’s appetite and clouded his judgment, but I suspect I’ve been there. Tate stays.
With so many transgressions, is it possible to draft a socially conscious, ethically responsible fantasy football team — and one that is any good? If you choose to do it, prepare yourself for lots of judgment calls, gray areas and borderline decisions. It’s harder than it seems. If you consider only the most serious transgressions, roughly 10 percent of the top 200 players could be ineligible. With far stricter criteria — including players fined for showing up late to team meetings, for example — nearly a third could be off the draft board. Ethical drafting gives you fewer options. However, it still leaves plenty of good players, at every position, in the NFL’s top 200 who can be drafted.
Consider this possible fantasy team: Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III ; running backs Matt Forte of Chicago and Toby Gerhart of Jacksonville; Denver’s Demaryius Thomas and Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown as wide receivers; Cleveland tight end Jordan Cameron; Seattle kicker Steven Hauschka; and the Carolina Panthers defense. The bench could feature Philadelphia’s Nick Foles at quarterback and Darren Sproles at running back; wide receivers Terrance Williams of Dallas, Mike Evans of Tampa Bay and Jarrett Boykin of Green Bay; Washington running back Roy Helu; and Minnesota tight end Kyle Rudolph.
Is this a team that will run away with your league championship? Not necessarily. (I mean, Gerhart?) But it shows that a socially responsible draft is possible. And you’ll sleep better knowing that you’ve put together a decent offense that, on its worst day, at least isn’t offensive.
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