Why I won't be playing fantasy football this fall for the first time in almost 30 years

I’m about to turn 37 years old, and I’ve been playing fantasy football for almost 30 years. It is a bit crazy, but it’s true: I helped organize my first fantasy football league in 1990 as a fourth-grader in Fargo, ND.

 I learned while writing this that Agassiz Middle School closed in 2007.

I learned while writing this that Agassiz Middle School closed in 2007.

My friend Jon was in sixth grade at the time, which meant he was at Agassiz Junior High, where he checked out a library book published in the ‘80s on how to play fantasy football — I remember it being a green hardcover, but I haven’t yet found it on the interwebs. Point is, shortly thereafter Jon and I had started a two-boy fantasy football league.

(I am one-hundred percent sure that I had Thurman Thomas on that team. I loved Thurman Thomas.)

The internet hardly existed at that point, so we added up our scores using the box scores in the next day’s newspaper. We drafted without cheat sheets or advice from experts. In fact, as far as I can tell, the first fantasy football magazine didn't even come out until 1992. By then, I was pretty much an expert. Also, I was pretty much 11.

I played with friends every year after that. In sixth grade, I remember checking out the old fantasy football book myself and starting a league with five other kids, most of whom I’d known since elementary school and who had never been consistently nice to me — I was a really, really small kid at that age, which created a sort of stubborn unwillingness to let people mess with me just because I was little, so things got a bit messy when I, of course, destroyed those buttheads unrelentingly at fantasy football.

It's also worth mentioning that fantasy football was intensely uncool in those days. Nowadays, that seems to have changed, but when, as high school freshmen, some friends and I managed to pull together a 14-team fantasy football extravaganza, we had so much fun with it — and it was something we kept under a bushel basket unless we were in strictly safe company.

 This is the real, actual trophy from that 9th-grade league. Photo courtesy of Justin Luther, circa 2018.

This is the real, actual trophy from that 9th-grade league. Photo courtesy of Justin Luther, circa 2018.

I charged everyone a $1 entry fee that year. I used the money to order a custom trophy from some shop in town that did that sort of thing, and when it turned out to only cost $12, I bought two ribbons off the rack by the register for second and third place. After the season, I gave the trophy to Justin Luther in a paper bag at a pre-arranged time during the school day when everyone was in class. A quick locker-to-locker transfer and Justin had his trophy — because, to be clear, he wanted the trophy. We all did. We just didn’t want to get beat up over it.

In college came things like free internet fantasy sports service. Yahoo! was the early leader and still might be the best. It made my hours spent poring over stacks of newspaper feel a little silly. And a little nostalgia-worthy. But it made things easier, and it opened things up to a wider audience.

In my early 20s, I started playing in a friend’s league that was done entirely offline (except for the weekly six-page reports, which Greg sent out by email despite calculating and writing manually). It was always just called The FFL. As in, this is THE Fantasy Football League, and all others are incidental. (Greg was right, for what it’s worth. It was the best, most joyful fantasy football league I ever found.)

For a while, I thought I'd be in that league forever, but at some point, about 10 years ago, I just woke up and realized I wasn’t that into football anymore. It was still fine, but I was living in Portland, where the Vikings were already done playing by the time I woke up some Sundays and where you were more likely to find a kid playing a trumpet on a unicycle in the park than an NFL football fan. Football and I drifted apart for a variety of good reasons. The folks in The FFL, meanwhile, didn’t appreciate my lack of participation and eventually demoted me to offshoot FFL-Europe. (This is completely true.)

Over the last 10 years, I've given sadly little effort and attention to a string of fantasy football leagues that friends would convince me to join. I hung on partly because I liked the idea of continuing to do this thing with friends that had once been a source of joy for me, and partly because it was something I’d almost always done, you know? I enjoyed playing in a couple family leagues, and I will say, I had a particularly fun season last year winning my brother-in-law’s league.

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But here we are in the spring of 2018, and fantasy football is suddenly unexpectedly interesting to me. I care again! I specifically want to quit.

The NFL announced a new policy last week that you’ve probably heard about by now, one requiring players to either stand during the National Anthem or stay in the locker room, while promising a fine for any players who do kneel or demonstrate in some visible way.

This decision to limit the expression of NFL players who would continue to protest police violence and systemic racism in America during the playing of the National Anthem — this ignites passion in me again.

The NFL showed that it values the comfort of its white fans and owners over the freedom and well-being of marginalized groups. The league essentially made official its blackballing of Colin Kaepernick as it publicly bent to the pressures of modern-day Trump-led America, all without consulting the NFL Players Association.

I badly want to not play fantasy football this year. It seems important.

Like I wrote back in January, this is the year we disrupt the systems of oppression instead of honoring them with our endless recognition and our spinning wheels.

When institutions and corporations show us this clearly who and what they value, then we must respond in kind. We must show them just as vividly what we value and what we reject. What we will and absolutely will not accept.

The NFL is no longer an option for me, knowing what I now know. And that’s a bummer, to be honest, because the Vikings just added Kirk Cousins, and if they win the Super Bowl for the first time ever now that I’ve left the scene, well, that would be as well-salted a wound as I can imagine for a sports fan. It’s never ultimately been a whole lot of fun to be a Vikings fan, after all. This would only be appropriate.

But come what may, whether it’s sports or our schools or any other area of our lives, this is the only way. There is no gray area anymore. The NFL — a for-profit corporation — has openly, actively sided with those who would deny, ignore and repress our systems of racism, violence and oppression.

The only morally justifiable response for me is to withdraw my support and participation. To not watch their games or participate in their product in any way. To not wear their memorabilia and thus advertise their brand. To delete their apps and not click on their words.

It’s time to ask questions once a business has shown its stripes in this way: in what ways is the NFL profiting from my decisions? Am I spending money with the NFL? Am I spending time online with the NFL and helping them justify their advertising revenue? Am I part of the millions the NFL can point to as playing fantasy football this season?

No. Not this year.