I would never, under any circumstance I can currently imagine, write a column that argues against the concept of fantasy football. It would feel no different from writing a column against the electric guitar. I first started playing fantasy football in 1990, before the Internet did the work and before yardage bonuses had been invented, and the only way to score was through touchdowns and field goals (I recall Jerry Rice putting up five touchdowns against the Falcons and wrecking the whole system). The number of years I’ve played fantasy football is now greater than the number of years I have not. I’ve been in one specific league since the latter half of Bill Clinton’s presidency; it is, as far as I can tell, the longest manufactured relationship of my life. So this is something I care about, more than I probably should. I’m not coming at this from some position of disagreement with the “authenticity” of fantasy sports, nor do I think there’s anything uncool about obsessing over math. I don’t think worrying about individual statistics more than the outcome of any given game is philosophically troubling (in fact, it might be preferable). Fantasy football has increased my enjoyment of the NFL. I’ll never stop playing. I love it.
But sometimes you have to love something in order to see its flaw.
I am increasingly uncomfortable with the way fantasy football changes our perception of people who are actually alive. This wasn’t a problem when I started in ’90, because — at the time — only obsessives even knew what is was. The people who cared about this activity were weirdos to begin with. But now 30 million people play every week, and there’s a whole media industry constructed around it, and there are FX sitcoms that use it as a narrative device, and it seems to be the primary way casual fans interact with the sport on a week-to-week basis. There is a massive, ever-expanding class of Americans who cannot remember a connection to pro football that did not involve the drafting and owning of skill players who work on their personal behalf. And the result, I fear, has been the mild dehumanization of humans we were already prone to perceive as machines.
Now, I realize dehumanization is a melodramatic word to use when discussing millionaires. I would guess that most people reading this column would love to be “dehumanized” in any context that pays them $9 million a year. But this isn’t about feeling sympathy for pro athletes. That’s not my point. What I’m proposing has more to do with how a few grains of personal investment prompt normal people to think about strangers in inaccurate, twisted, robotic ways. It’s about how something fun quietly makes us selfish, and it’s about the downside of turning real people into algebraic chess pieces.
The person who is making me think about this is Chris Johnson.
Chris Johnson played college football for East Carolina, a mid-major program that was just under .500 during the four years he played there. If you closely followed college football, you knew who he was; if you didn’t, you might only remember his last game as a senior (he had 408 all-purpose yards in the 2007 Hawaii Bowl against Boise State). He was the fifth running back selected in the 2008 NFL draft (not the fifth player overall — the fifth running back). He was taken by the Titans in the first round, mostly because he ran a 4.24 at the NFL combine. In some ways, that speed galvanized the central criticism pro scouts had about his future — there was suspicion he was just a track man who couldn’t break tackles or make defenders miss. His potential greatness was specific and situational (some thought he would mostly subsist as a kick returner). The running backs drafted ahead of him were Darren McFadden, Jonathan Stewart, Felix Jones, and Rashard Mendenhall. The jury is still out on McFadden, but it’s probable that Johnson will end his career with more yards than at least three of those peers (and maybe more than all of them). In 2009, he broke the league record for yards from scrimmage with 2,509 while scoring 16 touchdowns. He was the offensive player of the year on a team that went 8-8. But he held out during training camp in 2011 for a new contract, and he has not been the same player since getting that money. Through three games this season, he’s gained a paltry 45 rushing yards in 33 attempts. The conventional wisdom is that he might be done (or — at the very least — will need to start over from scratch in a city that isn’t Nashville).
So that’s Chris Johnson.1
This being the case, what are reasonable things to say about Johnson’s career, assuming he never has another significant season? An optimist might suggest he wildly overachieved — he came out of nowhere and was (briefly) the best runner in the league. A pessimist might say his early success was a statistical aberration and that he eventually became the player he always was (i.e., a fast guy who is only fast). A pragmatist would argue that he had a good career that was both surprising and disappointing, almost like someone who got hurt in his prime (even though the only true injury seemed to be to his motivation). I think all of these statements are justified. However, none of them are particularly common. The most universal analysis of Johnson’s career is the one being expressed by fantasy owners, which essentially boils down to this: “Fuck Chris Johnson.” This is because fantasy owners do not look at Chris Johnson’s career as a reflection of Chris Johnson’s life. They see Chris Johnson’s career as a reflection of themselves. They personalize his experience and hold it against him.2 That’s always what happens when something exists to you only as a commodity: You will care more about yourself than about the thing that you own.
In 2009, Chris Johnson had one of the greatest fantasy seasons of all time. As a result, people are going to remember him as a failure they hate.
Last week I saw an episode of ESPN’s PTI, and the two pundits were playing a parlor game called Over/Under. One of the scenarios they had to predict was the number of yards Johnson would gain in Week 3 versus the Lions. The “over/under” was 21 (he ended up with 24, so whoever manufactured the math gets a gold star). The specificity of this question seemed curious to me, and a little unwarranted: Why were people thinking so hard about a running back’s lack of production on a team that had yet to win a game? But then, of course, I remembered that this is how almost everyone now thinks about pro football,3 pretty much all the time. It’s been hardwired into the modern experience of following the sport. At this point, what’s more maddening than a running back who finishes a game with exactly 99 yards? Only the discovery that his backup had a one-yard touchdown.
There is an endless list of NFL running backs who’ve had great seasons for mediocre teams. In 1981, George Rogers gained 1,647 yards for the 4-12 New Orleans Saints. In 1984, James Wilder had 1,544 rushing (and 685 receiving) yards for a Tampa Bay squad that won only six games. I could probably cite 10 more examples without using the Internet. But what’s different about Johnson’s 2009 campaign is that — because of fantasy — his profile became paradoxically exaggerated. His efforts particularly mattered to people who saw added value in the Titans being 8-8, because that meant they’d have no choice but to feed Johnson the rock for three quarters before throwing him garbage-time swing passes against all the prevent defenses Tennessee would inevitably see when trailing by 17. Thirty years ago, Johnson would have been some underrated dude putting up stats in games that didn’t matter; in the fantasy era, he became “a good investment.” Which does not mean he was beloved (as a player, or as a person, or even as an idea). His fantasy base had no geographic loyalty to where he played and no particular appreciation for his past. He was perceived more like an employee. Moreover, the connection these owners forged with Chris Johnson started from the premise that he was awesome — and not just that he was awesome, but that awesomeness was required in order for him to be satisfactory. If you had the first pick in a 2010 fantasy draft, you almost certainly selected Chris Johnson. And he had a nice year, all things considered.4 But he was already doomed. He was doomed because the (fantasy) world had made a collective transition over the value of Johnson’s livelihood. In the minds of fantasy participants, Chris Johnson solely existed to make them seem smart. If someone’s league dues were $50, he was supposed to help them make $500. A man they had never previously cared about could now only disappoint them (because being the best fantasy player in theory meant he had to be the most productive in practice). He could rip them off somehow.
This is a very different experience than turning against a struggling player on your favorite team. A die-hard Titans fan might feel betrayed by the way Johnson is playing this year, but at least that fan loved him once; a fantasy owner never cares about the past, because he or she has no connection to anything outside the present. If you start from the premise that Chris Johnson owes you production, you will only remember the things Chris Johnson fails to do. Those failures will be the main thing you remember about his career. It’s the difference between making a friend and buying a friend.
I don’t mention this because I feel particularly bad for Johnson, because I don’t. I mention it because it’s a dangerous impulse, and I am as guilty as anyone else. The moment you start looking at the lives of public figures as a hobby is the moment they stop existing as people.
In the September 27 issue of Rolling Stone, there’s an amazing, insightful interview with Bob Dylan — one of the best I’ve ever read. Many of the quotes are unworldly.5 But it was one of Dylan’s more banal statements that made me (again) think about Chris Johnson. Dylan was talking about how audiences view his true personality, and his belief that this perception is irrelevant. He compared it to watching a movie or a play: “When I see an actor on a stage, I don’t think about what they are like. I’m there because I want to forget about myself, forget about what I care or do not care about. Entertaining is a type of sport.”
If I mentally transpose the words “entertaining” and “sport,” Dylan’s sentiment gets close to what I’m trying to express (and what I want to feel, but can’t). There was a time when I watched football in order to not think about my day-to-day life, but fantasy sports slowly changed that — in fact, my affinity for fantasy only makes it worse. I turn the players I draft into tiny parts of my life, which stops me from remembering that they have no relationship whatsoever to who I am. It makes me unconsciously think of them as extensions of myself. And I wonder if this is more problematic than I want to accept. Do I have any right to get angry at Chris Johnson? Does anyone? The fact that Johnson is killing fantasy owners should not factor into his legacy. But it will. I can see it happening, right now, before my eyes. It will end up being more galvanizing than the improbability of his 2009 greatness. “We can’t change the present or the future,” says Dylan in that same interview. “We can only change the past, and we do it all the time.” He’s totally, completely, undeniably right. And we’re doing it to Chris Johnson, right now.