DAN BICKLEY

Fantasy football has commodified players, overly-empowered fans

Aug 24, 2018, 10:25 AM | Updated: 10:28 am
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Fantasy football is new religion. It empowers and excites. It puts average fans in control.

Draft a team and everything changes. You begin to strut like NFL owners and fret like real general managers. You judge players on what they do for you. You become a mercenary of the new world, where your team means more than the local team.

So.

Draft night in a crowded bar. Eddie House is yapping, Ron Wolfley is twitching and John Gambadoro can’t get his computer to work. Jay Feely is sitting to my left, a former kicker who has seen the power of fantasy football.

He once tallied 25 points in a game against the Broncos. He produced five field goals, three extra points and became the fourth kicker to rush for a touchdown in the past 40 years. He outscored 16 other NFL teams on that particular Sunday, a performance that impacted fantasy players from coast to coast.

“People loved me or they hated me,” Feely said.

Fantasy football is also the devil. It distracts, distorts and tears at the fabric of fandom. It’s the bane of those who actually play the game, reducing courageous men into raw numbers. Cardinals star David Johnson can’t go out in public without hearing about his importance and value.

Not to the Cardinals, but to someone’s fantasy football team.

In the past, NFL stars were only criticized for poor statistics if their team lost. That’s no longer the case. Let down your fantasy owner, and vitriol flows like hot lava, burning the ears of professional athletes. They feel commodified. Some become resentful. Most are incredulous at how pervasive the sideshow has become and how it marginalizes their pain, their sacrifice and the fortitude required to step on a football field every Sunday.

The clashing realities only widen the gap between those in uniform and those in attendance, two sides that can barely relate to each other anymore. But there are exceptions.

Max Starks, former NFL offensive lineman, is sitting across the table. He once had a teammate in Pittsburgh propositioned by a female fan, who offered certain favors in return for elite production.

Over the years, fantasy football has become a billion-dollar business. It has increased awareness and expanded the league’s fan base. You learn about players you’ve always ignored. You learn to take no NFL game for granted.

Fantasy football has accomplished something even more improbable. In most leagues, scoring systems are rigged so quarterbacks aren’t that important, often ignored on draft night until the best running backs are all gone and a few rounds are in the books.

The NFL would be better with less reliance on quarterbacks, the most important position in sports, where the elite tilt the playing field for a handful of lucky franchises.

Suddenly, House erupts in anger. He accidentally chose Doug Baldwin instead of Golden Tate, a mistake that will probably work in his favor. The same thing happened earlier in the night, when radio producer Jarrett Carlen was ordering food while on the clock, clicking on Julio Jones instead of Saquon Barkley under duress.

I hate the team long before the draft ends. I compensate with stupid picks to feel more camaraderie and connection with the group I’ve assembled. Josh Rosen. Chase Edmonds. Jake Butt. How could you not?

I’ve learned that a fourth of a team’s points will come from your top three players. My team is going nowhere fast, and I know it. And it’s probably better this way.

A few years ago, I was in contention for a championship. My opponent featured Johnson, one of my favorite players in the NFL. And from the press box in Philadelphia, I watched in horror as he broke tackles, running over Eagles on his way to the end zone.

I silently screamed for someone to tackle him. That’s when I knew this could be a problem, this world where we’ve all become newly-crowned champions of our own self-interests.

Reach Bickley at dbickley@bonneville.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.

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Fantasy football has commodified players, overly-empowered fans