Before he became a senator from Minnesota, Al Franken was a cast member on Saturday Night Live who was known for proclaiming the 1980s the “Al Franken Decade.” All world events were seen by Franken through the prism of how they would affect Al Franken.
A generation later, the concept of having one’s own decade has been downsized to having one’s own football season. While the duration of one’s individual primacy has been curtailed, the spirit of the Franken decade is very much alive in the phenomenon that is fantasy football.
The weekly slate of NFL games is now prelude, in the mind of the self-absorbed fantasy player, to the more important matter of how the week’s statistical minutia will affect his own squad of fantasy draft picks.
Indeed, it seems now as if fantasy team managers almost control the manner in which the NFL product is delivered. At a recent Carolina Panthers game, highlights of the Vikings’ Adrian Peterson on the video screen were presented in terms of how his performance would affect those who “owned” Peterson in their fantasy leagues.
One might have thought the main beneficiary of Peterson’s accumulated yardage would be the Minnesota Vikings, for whom the actual Adrian Peterson toils. But NFL games can seem a mere backdrop to fantasy results – with sports media happily feeding a national frenzy.
The ascension of fantasy football into a pandemic was distracting and annoying enough in its early stages. In the last couple of seasons, however, a more unsettling chill wind has been felt across the football landscape: the advent of weekly for-profit fantasy leagues.
Commercials for Draft Kings and Fan Duel – did you know you could win a million dollars by investing just one dollar? – are sprinting to surpass ads for low-testosterone cures.
Being a sports fan has historically required the investment of years of loyalty. Weekly fantasy leagues require an emotional attachment of six days, before the next week’s auction starts the process anew.
It would be tempting to blame the millennial generation, whose need for constant stimulation is perhaps not satisfied by the explosively violent collisions of an actual NFL game. And indeed, the backwards-hat-wearing 20-somethings do seem to be the target demographic of these weekly draft leagues.
A meeting of two or more young football enthusiasts often leads to an update on their respective fantasy teams – a discussion with the equivalent fascination of hearing about the elimination of gluten from a friend’s daily diet.
Fantasy leagues originated with baseball, a game not really understood without statistical insight. Baseball is intrinsically entwined in batting and pitching statistics, and fantasy baseball leagues were a way for baseball purists to bring life to these numerical guts.
Football is much less subject to statistical evaluation, and its statistics reveal much less about a player than do baseball’s trove of data. But as football has steamrolled over baseball like a monster truck in the national sporting consciousness, so too have fantasy football leagues become an unavoidable extension of the professional football monolith.
The virtue of being fanatically loyal to a real team is the submergence into a collective spirit or movement. Devotion’s reward is not monetary, but in the civic bonding that results from shared victories (and sometimes even more deeply in shared losses – see “Buffalo Bills” and “Cleveland Browns.”)
Fantasy football is not a moral evil, but it is a further invitation to make one’s life more self-referential and self-centered. Sports fandom should be an antidote, not a catalyst, to the innate tendency to make everything about ourselves.
Joe Pearlman is an attorney in Charlotte. He may be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.