Divesting from Hate: Morality in Fantasy Football
September 13, 2014 | Ian Goldsmith
“We have a contract of depravity.”
This succinct, six word sentence from Robert Rossen’s 1961 classic The Hustler has been on my mind a lot in recent weeks. Its brevity is deceiving. “We have a contract of depravity.” Six words, and yet it describes the entire movie. Paul Newman’s character Eddie Felson, a fast-talking pool hustler, has indelible drive, ego and the skills to back up his bravado. He never seems to understand his true nature, however. That is, until it’s too late and he’s thrown away the one person that truly understood him. “We have a contract of depravity.” I notice myself thinking of this phrase often, because, in a way, it describes my relationship with fantasy football. Why do I love it? Am I just playing it for the competition? The money? Is there a point at which morality outweighs my love for the game?
The first time morality and fantasy football occupied the same space in my mind was in 2007. That year was the year that Michael Vick pled guilty to the operation of the Bad Newz Kennels dog fighting ring. As an animal lover, I was sickened. Everybody that I ever talked to about the situation was. By the time Vick had pled guilty, the salary cap website on which I was playing regularly had already released prices of players to open the season. Vick was on there. During the next several weeks, I argued passionately – and unsuccessfully – on the website’s message boards to remove Vick from the player list. The very thought of his name still being listed disgusted me. At no point during my rants, however, did I once consider to stop playing the game. Not once. The magnitude of the situation was somehow overshadowed by my need to pick a roster and watch as the prices moved up and down throughout the season.
In 2009, the year Vick was reinstated into the league, he played such a minor role on the Eagles that most people wrote him off and he went largely undrafted in fantasy leagues the next offseason. We all know what happened next; he earned the starting job and went on to have one of the best fantasy stretches for any quarterback of all time, including the legendary game against Washington – the highest standard fantasy game by a QB since 1960. I know, because I had picked him up off of waivers early in the year in a redraft league and was privy to his glorious 49 points. Any animosity I had towards Vick due to the dog fighting incident was immediately thrown out the window. I reveled in my win, silently chuckling to myself how much better I was than the others in my league because I had the wherewithal to pick up Vick first.
In the wake of the Adrian Peterson news on Friday, the only thing I could think to myself was “is this worth it?” After thinking about it, I realized that this question had been on my mind ever since the news about Ray Rice abusing his now wife came out in February. While Rice had a down year in 2013, he was still a member of a few of my fantasy teams. I respected Ray Rice. He was a leader, a stand-up individual. He was outspoken against bullying. Yet, here he was, dragging his unconscious fiancée out of an elevator. I know this because I saw him do it. I was shocked, disgusted….hell, pick any negative adjective you want and I was probably feeling it as I’m sure you were. Yet, while all this news was occurring, I was listening to Sirius XM 87 every day in my car, working on my research for the 2014 fantasy football season.
It didn’t occur to me that I shouldn’t play. I have played fantasy football every year since 1997. It is a part of who I am. Never had I had a hobby that so consumed me. When the Super Bowl is completed every year, I start thinking about the NFL draft and which rookies might have what it takes to become fantasy stars. Where will free agents go? How will players react to the implementation of new offensive and defensive schemes when their coordinators inevitably change?
When Roger Goodell and his minions came out with just a two game suspension for Rice, I – for the first time – seriously started to question why I was playing a game that supported such lenient sentences for brutal offenders. I’m embarrassed that I never thought about it more in depth before. Two games for knocking out a woman? Two games?!! The NFL surely saw the same video that I saw, didn’t they? How could anyone in their right mind look at that piece of film and think that it is OK to just slap the wrist of the offender? The decision couldn’t have come at a more impactful time for me as a football fan. Two weeks prior to this, my father had lent me his copy of League of Denial, the expose by Mark Fainaru-Wada and his brother Steve Fainaru that shockingly details the NFL’s years of cover up on the effects of concussions on NFL players. The book literally made me nauseous. I was finishing the last few chapters when the Rice news came out.
How could people have such utter disregard for the wellbeing of others? I wasn’t shocked so much as I was confused that Roger Goodell, Paul Tagliabue and slews of others would willfully neglect to help people that were clearly in need. The evidence was overwhelming and yet these men did nothing so that they could protect their bottom line. When the news came out earlier this week that the NFL was sent a copy of the video inside the elevator in which Ray Rice hit his wife Janay and still only suspended him for two games, I was numb. Yes, I was clearly angry, but any level of shock or surprise that I once would have had was rendered inert. It was as if I expected the NFL’s top brass to look the other way. And they did, once again. And, once again, I got back to working on my fantasy lineups for the week. I even watched the Pittsburgh v. Baltimore game and was happy to see Bernard Pierce pick up nearly 100 yards for the bargain basement price of $3600 on DraftKings. What a steal! Yes, the reservations I had about supporting the NFL were still in my mind, but I had a game to play.
Any questions about whether or not I should be playing were once again pushed to the back of my mind. That all changed when I got on the bus on my way home from work on Friday. Usually my ride home isn’t too long: 20-30 minutes tops. Well, Friday’s traffic was incessant. I was obviously going to be on the bus for an hour, so instead of taking the quick nap that I usually take on the way home, I decided to pull out my phone and nervously read about whether or not Josh Gordon was going to be reinstated. Instead, all I saw was breaking news that Adrian Peterson – THE Adrian Peterson, the best running back in the NFL, all together good guy (or so I thought) and future 1st ballot Hall of Famer – had been indicted on child abuse charges for lashing his son with a switch, a charge to which he admits. The sunken feeling in my stomach that I had upon finishing League of Denial returned, but this time it returned to such an extent that I literally almost vomited on the bus.
“We have a contract of depravity.” The words surfaced in my head again on that bus ride home. At what point does morality overtake my yearning to play a game? Why do I play fantasy football? Why do I watch the NFL at all? There is so much about it that makes me exude enmity and regret, yet I can’t wait until kickoff on Thursday. Soon after the Peterson news surfaced, ESPN’s Matthew Berry wrote a powerful piece that I highly suggest you read. He describes his struggles with trying to do his job as one of the biggest names in the fantasy football industry – perhaps the biggest – when disturbing off-the-field issues arise that have obvious fantasy implications. He is basically, to be trite, between a rock and a hard place. He either doesn’t say anything when the Rice suspension occurs and people wonder why he isn’t one of the people advocating players such as Bernard Pierce or Justin Forsett, or he does talk and is blasted on Twitter for being insensitive about not taking domestic violence seriously. It’s not an easy position to be in and I, for one, don’t envy him.
Is there a point at which my morals will overtake my love for fantasy football or will I forever be in a state of cognitive dissonance? My time deep in thought on that bus ride home Friday was the first time that I honestly considered this to actually have some merit. I continued to think about it, however, and realized that it does not have to be so black and white. There are people in every profession that do something deplorable on a daily basis. Watching the news makes me aware of a few of these, but domestic abuse and other horrific crimes happen thousands of times a day. Most of the cases we never hear about. NFL players live in the limelight, however. Every minute detail of their lives, especially in this day and age where information flows like the mighty Columbia, is divulged for the world to see. Yes, there seems to be a superfluous amount of inhumanity in the National Football League, perhaps even more so than in other professions. Is it enough for me to stop loving the game entirely and walk away from fantasy football? No.
Why do I love fantasy football? Is it because I am a numbers geek – have always been a numbers geek – and that following the statistics is gratifying in the odd sort of way that only other fantasy sports fanatics can understand? Is it because I root for losers? Growing up in Kansas City, I was attached from the start to the Kansas City Royals and Chiefs. While the latter has had some success in the regular season, their playoff record since I’ve been following them has been horrific. The Chiefs haven’t won the championship since Super Bown IV in 1970. The Royals have the longest playoff drought of any major North American sports team. They won the World Series in 1985, when I was five. That’s the last time they were in the playoffs. Perhaps this love of losers has driven me toward fantasy sports. In fantasy sports, I can be the owner of my own team and see them achieve the glory that I see other fans experience on a yearly basis.
Whatever the reason is, I love fantasy football and fantasy sports in general. I will not let the horrific actions of several people destroy my love for the game. Like the many investment groups that divest from fossil fuels, from here on out I will divest from players that break my idea of morality. I will never again draft Ray Rice to any team of mine in the future, no matter what he does to try and rectify the situation. Some might say that this is unfair, that everyone deserves a second chance. I don’t think that that is necessarily so. My idea of morality will certainly not be the same as anyone else’s. I don’t expect it to be. All I do know is that I’m playing fantasy football for the foreseeable future. That is, of course, unless Mark Cuban is right and this is the beginning of the end of the NFL. If that’s the case, I’ll be spending a lot more time in my garden on Sundays. Does anybody need some fresh tomatoes?