The clock was ticking. 30, 29, 28… I stared at my laptop as my index finger flicked between two football players. One was Nick Chubb, the young running back for the Cleveland Browns. The other was Tyreek Hill, the wunderkind wide receiver for the Kansas City Chiefs who served up some of 2018’s most electric football highlights.
I knew from fantasy football research that Hill was considered a volatile prospect in 2019 — the kind of guy who might put up small numbers one week and single-handedly win you a matchup elsewhere. But as the window for my pick came to a close — 19, 18, 17… — I realized that I was far more worried about his off-the-field volatility.
Here was a man who punched and strangled his then-pregnant girlfriend in 2014, which led to him pleading guilty and getting kicked off the Oklahoma State football team. Here was a man who stuck with said girlfriend, but years later faced allegations that he had hit his 3-year-old son with a belt and punches. A leaked phone call only helped to bolster the case: “You need to be afraid of me too, bitch,” he told his partner, Crystal Espinal.
But here I was, waffling. 10, 9, 8… I couldn’t do it. I clicked on Chubb and hit the “Draft Player” button. Whew, I thought. Then came a voice of doubt: What took you so long? Why would you want an abuser, the kind of guy surrounded not by smoke but flames, on your fantasy football team?
Then, however, another, quieter voice popped up in my mind. Hill wasn’t suspended by the NFL for this, it hissed. Now’s the time to get soft about morals? Think of Hill’s upside. Think about the points.
I haven’t stopped thinking about that moment since last week, when my 10-team league kicked off another season of fantasy football madness. What started as a nerdy, stats-driven game has turned into a $7 billion business over the last 20 years, with more than 59 million people playing in North America, according to a 2017 report. At its core, the game mirrors the meritocracy the NFL tries to advertise itself as: The best player is simply the one who gains the most yards and touchdowns, regardless of personality, leadership or style.
But in an era where ideals of social justice and the horrors of abuse are becoming clearer in every facet of our lives, be it Amazon, Chick-fil-A or Hollywood, it feels wrong for me to participate in that meritocracy without thinking deeper about what meaning it has to me, an average guy struggling to find his moral center in the world.
It’s drafting time all across the country, and I doubt a majority of players are mulling the ethical ramifications of drafting an abusive, problematic man. The average comment seems to boil down to this comment on Reddit: “Who cares if the guy is a piece of shit? It’s fantasy football. I care more about he’s going to get suspended and likely miss eight to 10 games.” But what’s also clear is that everyone has a line they’re not willing to cross when it comes to consuming entertainment, and that our various privileges and backgrounds shape exactly where we draw that line.
Some people refuse to watch football, pointing to the violence of the game and the league’s cover-up of its long-term health impacts, notably on the brain. Others struggle with the fact that underpaid black and brown bodies are being broken for the pleasure of a largely white audience, with white team owners profiting handsomely off an endless cattle call for athletic skill.
Me? I’m still here, watching the games on Sunday, despite my support of all the criticism aimed at the NFL. But I’ve drawn a line at actively cheering for toxic men, whether they punch women in the head, rape or strike their children. I’m the kind of guy who takes a dark pleasure in calling Ben Roethlisberger by the nickname “Rapistberger,” and I’m certainly proud that my team, the L.A. Rams, doesn’t appear to be harboring any shitheads. But then there’s fantasy football, which challenges my moral balancing act by seducing me with the idea that productivity is the best way I should gauge a human athlete.
So I turned to the internet, desperately hoping to find some exemplary solutions to my conundrum. I discovered that in many cases, it was women leading the way to help erase toxicity from their leagues. This makes sense: The NFL has a long-gestating domestic violence issue, but female fandom has exploded, comprising 45 percent of TV viewers and 1 out of 3 fantasy sports participants, according to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association.
And so, there are people like 44-year-old Susan Fielding, a member (and former champ) of She FF, a league based in Cincinnati. “We are a league of women, and I think that was our initial problem. What is the message we’re putting out there as a group of women, even if it’s passively supporting an organization that so clearly disregards our safety as women?” Fielding told CityBeat.
Fielding and her leaguemates ultimately agreed to put a full ban on any player accused of violence against women, convicted or not, in the process making a more “conscientious” setting for all women to take part in. They also agreed to donate a portion of fees to a local nonprofit, Women Helping Women, to make a tangible reparation for their participation. “In times like these, you kind of have to put your money where your mouth is, and it’s kind of hard to reconcile your feminist beliefs with an organization that clearly doesn’t value that,” Fielding said.
This seemed to strike a strong balance, but others have attempted to go the entire rhetorical distance in crafting an “ethical” fantasy team. A Washington Post columnist decided to nix drafting any player with any ethical concerns, even things like being caught for marijuana use. A Denver Post writer also tried this approach, compiling a spreadsheet full of dozens and dozens of player names and infractions ranging from sexual assault to lazy behavior. “It shows that a socially responsible draft is possible,” author Mark Glassman concluded. “And you’ll sleep better knowing that you’ve put together a decent offense that, on its worst day, at least isn’t offensive.”
Here’s the thing: That sounds simple for a journalist doing a thought experiment, but it’s so far removed from the competitive realities of playing for money (and, often, massive bragging rights). Given the relative silence when I asked my own fantasy league if they considered the behavior of players before drafting them, I’m willing to bet most serious players agree with the alternate conclusion from “The Football Girl” blogger Melissa Jacobs: “My approach to fantasy is admittedly narrow-minded. Compartmentalize the toxicity and win.”
A few people, however, did hit me up to discuss the issue, and it helped me realize that a massive first step is to acknowledge personal feelings of discomfort, and understand why a player gives us moral doubt. “I wouldn’t intentionally avoid shitty people in fantasy, but if I did draft them, I’d want to root for them to do well. Conversely, I don’t want to really root for them because they’re shitty people. So maybe I shouldn’t draft them, so I don’t need to feel conflicted,” my friend Christian Sanchez explains. “It’s not that I think having them on my fantasy team is inherently unethical, more about how I want to feel about the guys on my team.”
Another buddy, Geoff Murakami, was even more straightforward, noting that he hadn’t considered the character of a player during our draft. “By drafting them, I don’t feel as if I’m supporting them, or any of the behavior that landed them in trouble,” he tells me.
This is a common take, but it never made sense to me — was it even possible to be that neutral about a player who could win or lose fantasy matchups for you? He got existential when I press him on what offense would make him avoid a player. “That’s kinda like asking me what would it take for me to stop watching the NFL,” he replies. “Am I technically supporting the NFL as an institution by watching games every week? Yeah. But if someone were to ask me if I’m a supporter of the NFL, I wouldn’t be quick to say yes, you know?”
Part of this weird contradiction is the crucial notion that if you choose to forgo a player out of a moral duty, someone else will benefit off of it anyway (unless, of course, the entire league agrees to ban a player). But later, as I continued to chat with Geoff, he notes that he might nix a hypothetical trade for a toxic player and reflected on my Tyreek Hill dilemma. “It does make me think, if I’d drafted him, if I should be a little ashamed about it,” he texts me.
For better and worse, it feels like merely talking about these issues within the context of a bro-heavy fantasy league is already a major step forward for the culture around football. Most fans don’t know where their line against toxic behavior is drawn, and those who do still have exceptions to the rule (like me: I just simply ignored the allegations of harassment on Peyton Manning. I’m not proud of it, but I just struggled to care.) Inciting the conversation around how we support problematic people in sports touches on the deepest nerves of fandom, loyalty and pride — but it’s obvious that those nerves need stimulation, now more than ever.
I also turned to Queer #FancyStats, a wicked-smart tool for fantasy baseball in which the on-field productivity of a problematic player is calculated into a “price” for the owner to pay toward nonprofits or other groups that work to fix the issue at hand, be it LGBTQ rights or safe havens for abused women. I’ve decided that if I’m going to own an NFL player that has a history of violence, especially toward women and children, their success is going to literally cost me. I’m thinking $5 for every touchdown and 15 percent of their total season-end fantasy points, regardless of when or how long I owned them. That would mean a monetary cost of $96.15 for Hill’s 2018 season, which consisted of 12 touchdowns and 241 fantasy points. Given that it’s a $100 league, this seems enough to seriously discourage me from rolling the desperate dice on acquiring and starting such a player.
Does this sound ridiculous? Maybe.
Would I really enforce that rule on myself? Probably.
But it’s more attractive as a rhetorical device, and a reminder that there are tangible harms to forgiving and allowing abusive people to maintain their power and status in the world. It’s also another reminder of how I’m participating in a love affair with a sport that adores violence unlike any other sport, and a game that dehumanizes a person to their most coldly calculated potential: yards, targets, touchdowns, points. This is a fandom that booed Andrew Luck, who retired after realizing he was broken and only going to keep breaking in front of his new wife and child. This is the same league that covered up brain trauma by portraying it as an inconvenient outlier, and blackballed a black player who dared to use his platform in a way that offended old white men. (And then, you know, hired Jay Z to smooth things over.)
So yes, I get that it’s hard to calculate something as personal as right and wrong into a game that we love as a distraction from our lives. The entire calculus is fucked, really. But in the end, Tyreek Hill went to another player. From the bottom of my heart, I don’t judge the man who owns him. I also know that trotting him out into my starting lineup would leave a little lump in my gut — one that would just grow with every pass he caught and every tackle he juked through.
More than anything, though, I’m glad that the moment of hovering my mouse over his name made me reckon with what it means to me.