The Political Theory of Fantasy Football

Having risen to a record of 3-1 in my fantasy football league on the strength of an opponent who forgot to set his lineup, I have repudiated last season’s view that this is a child’s diversion that does not matter to serious people. I will, however, reserve the right to advert to that perspective when I play our league’s commissioner next week given the fact that he obviously rigged our autodraft, which I am quite certain he did, since there is no way he just happened to wind up with Peyton Manning and the Seattle defense on the same roster, but I digress. The point of these reflections is that fantasy football is not merely unjust—if, that is, I lose—but also destructive of the legitimate ends of the polity: It entails the erosion of particular ties of kinsmanship and loyalty in favor of an egoistic and anonymous individualism freed from bonds of patrie and blood.

To be sure, in the present case, those bonds were long ago severed. I was raised in rural Texas, a forlorn fan of the Houston Oilers, first in the heyday of Earl Campbell and then, in young adulthood, the era of Warren Moon, whose blown 35-3 lead to Buffalo in a 1993 AFC wild card game in which Jim Kelly went out early with an injury I have yet emotionally to overcome, it being the proximate cause of my subsequent hair loss, but I digress again. In a decision both intended and received as a personal betrayal, the Oilers moved to Tennessee. Having myself moved, several years later, to New England, it seemed tawdry to become a Patriots fan at that franchise’s peak, not having suffered with the team. Consequently, I am a man without a country and entitled to be, with respect to football, to borrow Machiavelli’s phrase, “without faith, without pity, without religion.”

But let it be confessed that were I loyal to a flesh-and-blood team, I would happily cheer against it if the needs of my fantasy team dictated it. And herein consist the pernicious effects of fantasy football. The fantasy team owner, Burke would lament, is wrenched from particular, and therefore concrete and orienting, loyalties. Fantasy football mistakes, in Rousseauian terms, the will of all for the general will, which is to say the team is also comprised of individuals who have no identity as a whole qua whole beyond the sum of their personal contributions. In Aristotelian terms, the fantasy team would be a deviant regime. Aristotle could so classify democracy despite it serving the evident interests of the majority; these interests could not be conflated with the good of the community because the whole had an interest as a whole that transcended the totality of individual appetites.

Not so fantasy football. The participant in a fantasy league, like the currency speculator, has no attachments to the particular. He or she is rootless, or at least his or her roots are planted in wispy soil. Thus the vicious cycle of individualism: the individual withdraws and feels alienated, feels alienated and further withdraws. The individual good is elevated over the common good, egoism over community. Meanwhile, even the individual good itself is shorn of its attachments to the particular, the mechanism by which the values that elevate it beyond mere appetite are transmitted.

Athletes, for their part, are rewarded in fantasy football for their personal statistics rather than their contributions to a common effort. Defensive scoring takes no account of whether the defense won the game: it can roll up sacks and turnovers and lose and still score better than another that mounts a heroic fourth-quarter goal-line stand that results in victory. Similarly, a receiver can rack up yardage but drop the game-winning touchdown and notch more points than the whole of the receiving corps whose joint contributions to the team produce a win. The children. What are we teaching the children?

Yet the NFL, perceiving the times, is embracing the trend. In an effort to attract fans no longer drawn by their ties to the particular, some teams are opening fantasy football lounges where fans can ignore the team game being played in front of them to follow the exploits of individual players instead. The destruction of the particular, the rise of the individual, the faux attachment to the universal: Burke saw where the plot of this film was headed. Heads will roll. Especially—this message is for you, Coach Carroll—if, as in week three, Marshawn Lynch is pulled in the third quarter again, team lead or no, before scoring the individual touchdown on which I was depending.



In Search of Virtù

Machiavelli is famous as a teacher of political realism, and his teaching is indispensable even for those who are not themselves Machiavellians.