When you grow up, odds are you will not play in the NFL.
For most of us not lucky enough to be nicknamed “Shoelace,” childhood dreams of gridiron glory will soon be smacked in the face by reality. Only a miniscule percentage will ever actually “suit up.”
But football stardom is still achievable in the digital realm.
“Fantasy football doesn’t run my life, but it’s a big factor in it,” LSA senior Jay Sarkar chuckled.
Fantasy football is one of America’s fastest-growing hobbies. Usually between eight and 12 friends, coworkers or family members will form an online league and draft real-life football players to their “teams.”
A player’s game day performance will earn the “manager” of that team points, and can help him or her get a win for that week. Different game events are given varying point values, with touchdowns and yards as positives and interceptions and fumbles as negatives. Each team has its “sleepers,” “sure things” and “hometown heroes.”
Fantasy sports participation has increased by almost 400 percent since 2005, from 9 million to almost 34 million participants, according to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association.
With rapid ascent has emerged a pervasive culture. Some websites and magazines deal exclusively with fantasy football, and some restaurants offer perks for holding “draft day” in their establishment. FX even has a wildly popular television series about fantasy football called, what else, “The League.”
Many students, like Sarkar, say fantasy football is a method of making the NFL a more interactive league.
“I’d gotten into the NFL in, probably, third or fourth grade, and some of the older kids said I should play fantasy football,” he said. “I said ‘What’s that?’ and they told me ‘Think of it as a video game, just it relies a lot more on real life.’ ”
To demonstrate his continued domination of his league, Sarkar ordered himself a gaudy, WWE-style championship belt, evidence of his four straight championships.
Animated trash-talk, like Sarkar’s nod to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, is a common aspect of fantasy football. Whether through rude text messages or a well-timed “woo!” shouted in an opponent’s face, rivalry — whether friendly or not — is an integral part of the experience.
The participants in LSA senior Stef Manisero’s league like to raise the stakes, and in week five, things got hairy — literally.
“Two girls were playing each other and whoever lost had to wax our friend’s back,” she explained. “It already grew back though.”
Besides testing relationships with all of your closest friends, fantasy football also makes sports more engaging. For those who won’t ever throw on a Lions jersey or a coach’s headset, fantasy football is the next best thing. It adds a sense of strategy to watching sports — something sorely missed by athletes who didn’t make it past high school.
Fantasy football transforms armchair quarterbacks into heroes, and moves glory from the playing field to the digital realm. Enthusiastic managers can and will talk about their “monster week” to anyone who will listen.
“If I’m talking to you about my team, you don’t care, but you can’t wait to tell me about yours,” said LSA senior Mike Dewitt, who plays in Sarkar’s league. “But actually, I think that fantasy helps people who want more out of the NFL get more out of it.”
Dewitt also explained that fantasy football can drastically affect perception of a player.
“NFL players can make themselves heroes by being good fantasy players, or they can make themselves villains by underperforming,” he added.
Dewitt and Sarkar have both formed allegiances to players as a direct result of fantasy football.
“I drafted LaDainian Tomlinson three years in a row, and those were his three studliest years. After that, L.T. became a player I cheered for every year because I felt like he did something to help me out,” Dewitt said.
Sarkar takes his devotion a little more seriously.
“Whoever is my biggest fantasy stud of the year, half of the time I’ll end up buying his jersey,” Sarkar revealed. “People will tell me ‘Oh, you’re a fair-weather fan!’ I got knocked for buying a (Houston Texans defensive end) JJ Watt jersey. But, I loved him at Wisconsin, I love him in the pros, and maybe I own the Houston Texans defense.”
There are priorities that outweigh fantasy football, though, as most football fans will tell you. Engineering senior Rick Lorenz, a Detroit Lions fan who plays in a league for money, chooses his heart over his pocketbook every time.
“Tom Brady is my starting fantasy quarterback, but if the Lions and Patriots are playing, I will not be upset if the Lions shut out Tom Brady and he gets me negative points.”
But that doesn’t mean loyalty affects his strategy.
“I set the best fantasy lineup possible every week. I don’t take fan loyalty into effect,” he explained.
It’s not all about what’s happening on the gridiron, though — Dewitt, Manisero, Sarkar and Lorenz all agreed that making a team name is a time-consuming process. While there are surely many people who skip the agony involved in crafting a wittier-than-thou team name, most will indulge. A good name will usually involve some form of football pun: In Lorenz’s league there are team names like “My Vick in a Box,” “Breaston Plants” and “Show Me Your TDs” (sound that one out when your little brother isn’t around).
While fantasy football does exude some hypermasculine characteristics thanks to its association with American sports culture, it’s not necessarily a man’s world out there. Manisero is sitting at second place in her league — which is split half men and half women — and her only competition is first place LSA senior Rachel Nitzkin.
“I wasn’t going to play, but they needed another person, so I did it and now, I’m addicted,” Nitzkin said.
Nitzkin, who had not been a serious football fan before, said fantasy has helped her understand and enjoy the game.
“I know what a receiver and a running back is now,” Nitzkin bragged. “I learned so much. I was in my 8:30 class trying to pick between Kyle Rudolph and Jimmy Graham this week. I still have some research to do.”
Fantasy football does serve purposes other than competition. For Dewitt, his league with high school friends is an anchor for their friendship.
“I think it’s more to keep us in touch than for us to play fantasy football and win,” Dewitt said.
What started out in middle school as a way “just to hang out with the guys” has become a way to check in with friends on a week-to-week basis. There is no money involved in the league, it’s simply a way of staying close, albeit remotely.
While fantasy football diehards are not out pre-gaming before noon like their Michigan football fan counterparts, they are equally dedicated. Some managers spend hours researching before the draft and just as long adjusting their rosters every week before Sunday kickoff. Fantasy enthusiasts may not be committed enough to pound seven shots of bottom-shelf vodka in a row, but their enthusiasm is still palpable. Just ask any fantasy nut in the middle of a given week. By then, they may be halfway done complaining.