Ben Charlson: Fantasy football needs a reality check

Wednesday, September 6, 2017 - 4:24pm

As leaves start to change color and classes begin this fall, a wave of football hype spreads across campus. For many University of Michigan students, the return of the football season provides relief from the classroom — a part of a work hard, play hard mentality that is a uniting force across campus. For many, NCAA football takes a backseat to professional football come Sunday.  

The NFL, a weekly refuge from work for countless students and employees, has now captured the attention of the vast and lucrative fantasy football community that is perhaps most crucial to the league’s consistent success.

But the rise of the NFL has come with a fair share of problems, earning unfavorable media attention for the concussion epidemic and domestic violence issues. Despite fantasy football’s growth into a booming industry, it has worked to hide and ultimately perpetuate the prevalence of domestic violence across the league.

The NFL and Commissioner Roger Goodell have come under fire for their mistreatment of various domestic violence cases in the past few years. NFL players Ray Rice, Josh Brown and Ray McDonald were all suspended on domestic violence allegations, but many claim their punishment did not match the violent nature of their crimes.

In the case of Rice, a video surfaced of him violently beating his wife, Janay Rice, in a hotel elevator. For someone without the privilege and fame of a three-time pro-bowler and Super Bowl champion, this type of concrete evidence could lead to jail time. Instead, the NFL “cracked down” with a measly two-game suspension — the same penalty that has been handed out for failing a drug test.

In the wake of their actions, the NFL received tremendous backlash and moved to harshen their protocol for sexual assault and domestic violence punishment.

However, this topic remains at the forefront of the league and has resurfaced in the past few months. Ezekiel Elliott, a Dallas Cowboys first-round draft choice, allegedly abused his then-girlfriend Tiffany Thompson in July 2016, for which he faced a six-game suspension as of August 2017. Though this is a step up from the NFL’s weak punishment in past cases, the severity of the allegations is clouded out by the very reason Elliott garnered so much attention on the field — fantasy football.

One read through ESPN’s fantasy website reveals a string of articles and videos about Elliott, but virtually none of them comment on the morality and character of his actions. Rather, the main theme is: “Where will Elliott be drafted?” By focusing on Elliott’s draft position and projected points for the year, talk about the second-year running back has gradually moved away from his domestic violence case.

Masking the severity of these cases is a dangerous trend that elevates the status of athletes and causes them to deviate from social norms, offering them an excessive sense of pride, or hubris, and the belief that they can commit illegal acts and still get away with it.

Earning millions of dollars should not earn any athlete a free pass from domestic violence. Glorifying superstars for their statistics and treating them as tradable commodities creates a sense of immortality, potentially leading to more violence in the future. If anything, spectators and the media must strive to hold athletes to a higher standard, especially as fantasy football opens up an escape route for players whose performance attracts so much attention.

It is this relationship between sports and the media, as one of the most influential in the entire entertainment industry, that allows companies like ESPN and Fox Sports to shape and alter public opinion through their coverage.

Once SportsCenter, ESPN’s flagship program, takes a stance on an issue, especially a sensitive topic like domestic violence, it has the tendency to become the main perspective viewers take as well. While nearly monopolizing the world of sports, ESPN has used its power to alter the timing of the NFL Draft, the schedule of NCAA football games and the entire conference structure. Because of its influence, the station has a responsibility to maintain moral high ground on any and all controversial topics. Even as football season approaches and viewers demand predictions and rankings for the upcoming year, the network should not allow for turning a blind eye to domestic violence.

Thus, as ESPN fantasy insider Matthew Berry continues to harp on Elliot’s second-round draft value, the public too will continue to forget his act of domestic violence. Even as the NFL harshens punishments and speaks out against these cases, it has found an opponent in fantasy football.

As participants, we must also play a role. To neglect domestic violence and sexual assault because of an athlete’s performance sets the stage for continued violence against women, a scary prospect given the safety net handed to these athletes. On our campus, domestic violence awareness and prevention is a constant and impactful theme. There are numerous lectures, counseling resources and programs devoted to eliminating domestic violence from our community, especially among athletes.

As students, we have the duty to make use of these resources and be upstanding citizens if and when a situation arises — either in person or through an online draft board. So even if Elliott is available when it comes to your pick, give it some consideration. Maybe don’t take him at all.

Ben Charlson can be reached at bencharl@umich.edu