Do Fantasy Sports Make Fans Less Likely To See Players As Human Beings?
It was a routine play at the tail end of the Seattle Seahawks’ 46-18 throttling of the Indianapolis Colts. While trying to whittle the remaining time off the clock in the fourth quarter, Seattle’s rookie running back, Chris Carson, took a handoff and was stopped at the line by two defenders, and his left leg was bent into an unnatural and nauseating shape.
Be warned, it’s ugly:
On Monday, Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll said Carson had fractured his leg and suffered a high ankle sprain. The team and Carson are still waiting the results of an MRI, but odds are that he’s going to miss a good chunk of time. Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman was clearly affected. In a post-game press conference, he delivered a lengthy monologue about how the popularity of fantasy sports has diminished fans’ ability to see any athlete as little more than a fungible pawn.
“I think a lot of people, a lot of fans out there have looked at players less like people because of fantasy football and things like that,” Sherman said. “You go and say, ‘Oh, man this guy got hurt.’”
“But you aren’t thinking, ‘Hey man, this guy got hurt, he’s really physically hurt and he is going to take some time to recover and it’s probably going to affect his mental state and now he has a long rigorous rehab,’” he continued. “You are thinking, ‘Oh man, he’s messing up my fantasy team.’”
Sherman added that fans never consider how Carson’s injury playing out in “real life” and that any meaningless losses fans suffer in a silly if highly-profitable and highly popular game — by the Fantasy Sports Trade Association’s accounting, close to 60 million Americans and Canadians are playing fantasy sports and spending $27 billion per year — pale in comparison to the impact of a career-altering or even career-ending incident.
“They may not ever get another shot,” Sherman said. “They may never get another down, another play.”
All of this is true. As Barry Petchesky noted at Deadspin, fantasy sports, particularly fantasy football, have exploded in popularity, and by turning players into gambling chips, it’s hard not to succumb to a facile kind of dehumanization. If you’d logged on to Twitter on Sunday night, searching for news on Carson’s injury, it would be impossible not to see any number of people kvetching about the lack of decent running backs available on the waiver wire, maybe wondering if the third stringer who scored a garbage-time touchdown could take over full-time or if Eddie Lacy was ready to handle a larger workload.
But as Petchesky also wrote, fantasy sports merely focused and highlighted the commodified lens through with fans view athletes. I’ve spent a decent amount of time this year feeling sad or angry or both as injuries have decimated the New York Mets’ once-powerful rotation. I’m a Mets fan, but I’m not really concerned with how Matt Harvey or Noah Syndergaard or Steven Matz or Zach Wheeler or Jeurys Familia (OK, now I’m getting depressed again) are dealing with the trauma, both the physical and emotional toll it’s taking on them. Nor do I really ever think about, as Sherman said, “his family and what his mom and girlfriend and wife might be going through.” I’m upset that I won’t get to enjoy watching those Mets pitchers perform and pissed off at the prospect of another Mets-ian summer-long slog of a season.
That’s OK. Sports, in the end, are transactional. They provide a form of entertainment that we, the customer, choose to purchase and hopefully enjoy. The illusion we truly care about players, that they’re heroes, and a significant part of our lives, has always been just that. Moreover, any human who tried to express and experience real, genuine empathy for every single person they encounter--from total strangers to beloved players--would go mad.
What Sherman fails to mention is that the NFL is very much complicit in the rise of fantasy football, particularly daily fantasy sports (DFS). As of this writing, 28 NFL teams have had a sponsorship agreement with either FanDuel or DraftKings, the two largest DFS companies, since 2014, though five of those agreements have come to an end; Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys and Robert Kraft of the New England Patriots both have an ownership stake in DraftKings, and the NFL hosts its own “official” fantasy football games at NFL.com, replete with analysis, recaps, and breakdowns from reporters, insider tips from its own “Fantasy Genius,” and, of course, the ability to win cash prizes.
The NFL is well aware that fantasy sports keeps fans glued to, say, a particularly awful game between the Jets and Jaguars because they “own” the Jags D and are hoping a ridiculous backward pass and ensuing touchdown might help them snag 8 points. You know, like this:
[Full disclosure: Yes, I do have the Jaguars on my fantasy football roster. I am also a Jets fan.]
But pushing gambling on customers works, even if most of those playing DFS are little more than chum for the sharks. Hell, it works so well that the NFL wants to get young kids hooked, seeding supposed educational material with naked advertising for fantasy football. Whether or not Sherman is aware of the lengths the NFL goes to sell fantasy football, it would be hard to miss DFS ads that plaster stadiums and are run constantly on TV during the games or the fact that his fellow NFLers play fantasy football too.
And while it’s easy to understand why players might be tempted to clap back at anyone nagging them about fantasy sports, any conversation about its proliferation and the attendant lack of empathy has to include Sherman’s employers. After all, this is the kind of fandom the league wants, one in which athletes are seen as little more than poker chips.
Share image by Otto Greule Jr./Getty Images.
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