L. Benjamin Rolsky

On December 29th, 2017, the New York Football Giants introduced their new General Manager, former GM of the Carolina Panthers Dave Gettleman. The Giants had just come off one of the worst seasons in the franchise’s history- going 3 for 13 during the regular season. Injuries plagued the team all season long as “weapon after weapon” fell to the wayside on the proverbial field of battle (The term “weapon” typically refers to a wide receiver on a given team, in this case, Odell Beckham Jr. of the Giants would be the preeminent example of a quarterback’s “weapon” in “the receiving core.” Presumably, the more “weapons” a quarterback has, the better). Most importantly, and perhaps most significantly, the team seemed to be disconnected from the very beginning of training camp.

Despite coming off of a season (2016) where the defense had ranked in the top five across the league, members of the Giants defensive secondary mentioned a “lack of chemistry” in the locker room. It did not take long for fans or the media to realize how prescient such a comment truly was. Half way through the season, the team was a shell of itself as one player after another went down with injury or team-ordered suspension. Various news outlets began reporting on a “lack of a culture” within the Giants locker room and who could be most at fault- head coach Ben McAdoo, General Manager Jerry Reese, or co-owner John Mara? In most instances, New York sports talk radio diagnosed the Giants with a severe case of individualism over any and all team concept. In other words, the name on the back of the jersey had superseded the name on the front of it. In essence, the player had become more important than the team itself.[1]

The arrival of Gettleman was supposed to signal a “culture change” within the Giants organization, or so said the New York media. If you listened to the press conference in real-time, you may have thought that another prescient moment was about to unfold. Gettleman started his remarks on a note of nostalgia. He had fallen in love with the game of football in the 1950s watching teams such as the Giants and the Cleveland Browns do battle upon the gridiron. In light of the team’s seemingly dire cultural straits (despite their immense objective talent as a team, talent implying the capacity of a player “to produce,” meaning “put up numbers” when it comes to throwing or receiving yards), Gettleman was asked a number of questions about leadership, motivation, and draft philosophy. He was also asked about his managerial style and how he would be applying it to the Giants. “In terms of my managerial style, I believe in communication. I believe in collaboration. I believe in brutal honesty.”[2] Compared to past general managers, Gettleman’s willingness to collaborate was a welcome change to the somewhat static thinking of “the former regime” (in most instances, “regime” means organizing principle or team philosophy that dominates a franchise for a particular period of time). He also was asked about his understanding of team building and what he found most instrumental to its successful execution. “In terms of building a team, my philosophy – I have a saying that I learned from – you’re going to look at me like I’m nuts – All in the Family, Archie Bunker – ‘every man is my equal in that I may learn from him,’ and I’ve thought about that since the ‘60s when I first heard it.”

While Gettleman’s reference more than likely fell on deaf ears when it came to football’s primary demographic, it nevertheless said something about how the organization was responding to the cultural troubles that seemed to characterize much of the past season’s dysfunction- both on and off the field. It seemed most likely that Gettleman was chosen for his grounded demeanor, familiarity with the organization, and larger-than-life personality. It could also be argued that Gettleman represented the best person the Giants could find to re-instill a sense of respect and “culture” within a team largely untethered from any notion of accountability or commitment to one’s teammates. In this sense, the Giants were in a similar boat to other teams presently facing a challenging situation with a young, star player or players. In fact, one could say that much of contemporary American sport is experiencing a generation crisis when it comes to its prime sources of talent. Regardless of the professional league (minus the Yankees, of course), each New York team is arguably addressing a similar source of concern with one of its young, star players (Matt Harvey and Kristaps Porzingis are two such examples- one from MLB, the other from the NBA).

“Culture,” or a lack thereof, has recently emerged as an explanatory device for much of New York sports talk radio whereby a show host will use “culture” to explain why a team is experiencing difficulty, or poor play. The subsequent analytical step is to then use a given player’s concern for “his brand” to help explain his seemingly selfish behavior. Read in this light, Gettleman’s words relied on the wisdom of one of television’s most beloved characters to convey his commitment to team-building done the right way, through mutual respect and commitment to something larger than one’s self. While much of this story makes sense, what does not is the recently mounting criticism of millennials and their fickle purchasing habits.

Accusing someone like Odell Beckham Jr. of selfish behavior may not be entirely wrong, yet it’s not entirely right either. In fact, such troubles have far less to do with individual makeup or personality, and far more to do with the sociological environment within which such a sport is played by its respective players and viewed by its respective fan bases. If anything, the generation crisis currently suffusing American sport can be understood as a reflection of a deeper value system that has become embedded in the very fabric of professional sports in general and the NFL in particular via Fantasy Football. In this sense, to critically study fantasy football is to give words to something as clear as it is opaque: social prevalence. It is also to study the ground floor of religion as it finds a foothold in the public square through various means of institution building, the handing down of origin narratives, and the rationalization of charisma through daytime television programming.

The history of Fantasy sports is a rather unexpected one. In 1994, writer Luke Esser composed an initial history for the then recently created Fantasy Football Index Magazine, one of the sport’s first periodicals. For Esser and other commentators, fantasy football was born out of conversations between three men: Wilfred “Bill” Winkenbach, Bill Tunnell and Scotty Stirling during the 1960s. As luck would have it, two of the men worked for the Oakland Tribune while the other had a financial stake in the Oakland Raiders (Winkenbach). Winkenbach is most often credited as the founder of fantasy football, which actually came out of his experimenting first with golf and the weekly drafting of players for fictitious teams. In August of 1963, the three men came together in order to create the first fantasy football league: GOPPPL (Greater Oakland Professional Pigskin Prognosticators League). None of this would have taken place, however, were it not for the instrumental role of the local sports bar. One of the original contributors to the idea of GOPPL, bar owner Andy Mousalimas’s King X Sports Bar in Oakland, CA served as the sport’s place of birth amidst a largely working class constituency of Raider fans (This particular bar was also the birthplace of the first Ladies Division, which was not established until September of 1974). In fact, if you wanted to play in the league, you had to have an explicit affiliation with the Raiders organization.

Relative to today’s social media landscape, the earliest fantasy drafts were more of an art than an empirical science. “Drafts were done old-school style, and there were no apps to help track player performances,” Mousalimas recounts, “Wink’s son once said he remembered his father not only watching one game, but also setting up radios around the TV so he could listen to other games.” In addition to creating much of the game’s architecture when it came to its rules and regulations, Winkenbach was also largely responsible for creating its many rituals and performances, such as the yearly drafting ceremony as well as the end-of-the-year hazing of the one with the worst league record according to wins and losses during a given season of play. “Winkenbach had this trophy made with a wooden football face and a dunce cap on top for the guy who came in last each year,” Stirling said. “The last-place guy had to keep it on his mantle till the next season, and when you visited his house he damn well better have that trophy up on the mantle or there was trouble.”[3] In such instances, Winkenbach was not only building a system of play from the bottom up, but he was also directly and indirectly participating in a form of tradition creation whereby he and his associates went about creating what could be understood as a constellation of ideas, concepts, and routines that over time formed into various institutional formations such as magazines, conferences, and eventually television programming that we today call Fantasy Football.

While much of this culture is common knowledge to those playing fantasy sports, it has arguably gone mainstream as well over the past two decades due to television programs such as FX’s The League (2009-2015), and recently ESPN’s The Fantasy Show with charismatic fantasy guru Matthew Berry. According to the empirical research data provided by Fantasy Sports Trade Association, the years of 2007 to 2008 saw the highest jump in fantasy play (across all fantasy sports) going from 19.4 million to almost 30 million people in one year. According to the same source, the typical fantasy player is an affluent male who spends about $600 dollars a year on league-related expenditures. More than half of the time this player has a college degree, and earns around $75,000 dollars a year at his job. Comparatively speaking, men make up about 71% of those playing fantasy sports, while woman make up about 29%. In light of these numbers, one can understand how and why television programming has taken advantage of niche-based shows that appeal to those typically holed up in their respective “Man Caves” or “War Rooms” on any given Sunday. Why then, exactly, do so many people play fantasy sports? For one, it gives people an opportunity to come together around a sport that is beloved by all. It also gives people a chance to bond with one another in addition to the very players that they often draft each and every week (The League characters were able to meet multiple professional athletes over the course of the show’s run on FX).

For one of sport’s original founders, fantasy play taps into a fundamental yearning for design and control. “The idea that you can draft your own team really turns guys on,” Stirling said. “I know in Oakland some guys thought they were really building a football team. In their minds they were probably another Al Davis.” In addition, television has served as the perfect incubator for fantasy’s popularity. “T.V. caters to fantasy leagues,” he said. “You don’t see the game on the screen, you see one guy throwing the ball or one guy running the ball. They focus in on the quarterbacks and running backs way too much.” This discrepancy between “the game” and those playing it speaks to the veiled disjuncture at the heart of fantasy sports. While fantasy sports has certainly resulted in more people watching in general, it has also repurposed the game of football itself in the name of fantasy’s largely quantitative interests and aspirations. In this sense, one may watch a given game on television, but not for the game itself. Instead, one now watches games in order to follow their respective fantasy teams and how well they “produce” for a given general manager. As a result, wins and losses arguably become less important relative to a single player’s “numbers” for that given week, especially if that particular player has a reputation for being a “top-five receiver” or “top-five quarterback.”

Much, if not all, of this work is predictive in nature, meaning that in fantasy sports individual players marshal their respective teams together in order to do battle with other fantasy teams relative to the actual teams themselves who play each and every Sunday. As a result, the more than 60 million people who currently play fantasy sports have a direct impact on how a player’s value is determined in the wider public sphere. In this sense, the lack of “culture” of which Gettleman spoke at the beginning of this piece speaks to a fundamental shift currently taking place in professional sport such that “team play” or “team concepts” tend to fall to the wayside in favor of those who produce. For the New York Football Giants, this means making sure quarterback Eli Manning and wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. are happy and content as the two most “productive” players on the team. This also means that individuals like Beckham may know that wins and losses are what ultimately matter at the end of the day for the organization (plus actual championships, or “Lombardi’s” as players and coaches typically say), yet in his mind he also knows that his “production” is valued just as much by both the organization and perhaps more importantly by those who drafted him first with their number one overall pick.

In such a context, how does one decide as a professional athlete where his or her allegiances should lie? Is it with those who you call your brothers on the proverbial battlefield, or the broader logic that foregrounds quantitative predictive assessment in determining a player’s overall worth? While fantasy sports may go by the name “fantasy,” its execution and application to professional sports is anything but. Those who specialize in the type of predictive statistical analysis relevant to the world of sports relies on a myriad of formulas, algorithms, and epistemic categories of its own invention (W.A.R.P. being an example of such a categorical formation, which “shows the value of players that can play heavy minutes and avoid injury while continuing to perform above replacement level”). Due to the popularity of such fantasy-related enterprises, which rely heavily on the use of “big data” and predictive analytics, both fans and professional sports commentators have begun echoing the values disseminated and cultivated by such models over and against more indigenous or organic measures such as “team play,” “playing both sides of the ball,” or “energy guy.”[4]

For companies that specialize in the application of this type of data to common business challenges, predictive analytics is an indispensable component of their work. For the company SAS, sports analytics is a growing market. “The NBA’s Orlando Magic uses SAS predictive analytics to improve revenue and determine starting lineups. Business users across the Orlando Magic organization have instant access to information. The Magic can now visually explore the freshest data, right down to the game and seat.” In other words, predictive fantasy logic has not only created new ways to measure, quantify, and thus produce knowledge about the world around us (as it has in other industries- think of IBM’s Watson), but it has also resulted in a fundamental re-evaluation of the importance of concepts such as “team play” or “culture” to a given professional team and its players.

Fantasy culture has also made numerous inroads into various universities across the country due to its heavy reliance on statistical analysis otherwise known as “analytics.” For one program at MIT, advanced juniors and seniors can take part in a research program dedicated to “writing an algorithm to draft and manage a fantasy football team.” The program also includes “aspects of machine learning to collect and synthesize available data, and the development of an app to make recommendations to fantasy football team managers.” In addition, MIT’s management school is also connected to various fantasy enterprises including the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. This explosion in quantitative analysis has become especially problematic in the sport of baseball where many to most of the major decisions made on a daily basis are based not on the team’s actual manager or coach, but rather on the crunching of numbers that takes place in analytics departments of various front offices around the league. This has prompted many to wonder about the role of the manager himself, and how necessary the position actually is moving forward.

This story is not an unfamiliar one to scholars of religion. In some ways, many of us have been trained to think similarly about the seemingly oppositional relationship between something called “religion,” and something else called “technology” or “modernity.” These developments have often been thought of and rendered in scholarship as mutually exclusive categories, but more recent work has been excavating to what extent the powers of Enlightenment knowledge were co-constituted by other forms of knowledge including the religious. To study the impact of fantasy sports on sport itself is to study a similar phenomenon- one that presents a generationally defined tradition going up against the corrosive and modernizing forces of big data and predictive analysis. This story is not entirely off base. Not only is the word “fan” short for “fanatic,” but in many ways how one becomes a “fan” of a team is inseparable from how one is reared within a given religious tradition. If you’re a Yankee fan for example, season tickets are often handed down from one generation to another as children are “born into” a team instead of being allowed “to choose” one. Countless fans make the trip to Monument Park at Yankee Stadium to pay their respects to greats past and their numerical achievements in the record books. And lastly, fans “check” each other’s fandom based on their current residence and place of birth.

In this sense, it may behoove us as scholars of American popular culture and religion to begin considering sport fandom more from a Catholic model of religious studies rather than the more common Protestant model that has overdetermined much of the study of religion since its inception according to the motif of “choice.” In addition, sport itself could be understood as a product of its socio-economic setting—in this instance, American society itself. As such, notions of “parity” and “competitive balance” heard on sports talk radio eerily mirror similar expressions and desires of the larger society including notions of “equality” or “fair play.” There may indeed be some semblance of parity across the professional sports landscape, but this claim is difficult to demonstrate when there continues to be a profound disparity between the best teams and the worst teams, regardless of the association in question- not unlike American society itself. Additionally, there is a significant difference between mediocrity and parity, a distinction often missed by those who attempt to predict the numerical future. While few seasons of professional sports have been as volatile as this past one, due largely in part to the actions of the current president of the United States, this is by no means a negative development. If anything, it yet again reveals the extent to which sport itself reflects the fractured setting of its cultural composition. As such, once seen as a “good” idea, the introduction of instant replay into virtually all professional sports settings is now being called into question as the relentless pursuit of the exact call has slowed the respective games down to a crawl.

Seen in this methodological light, the prevalence of fantasy sports and its data-driven logic, as well as its contemporary impact on various professional sports leagues, can be understood as yet another iteration of the Enlightenment project gone awry in favor of its latent barbarism or anti-Enlightenment tendencies. For critical theorist Herbert Marcuse, this phenomenon speaks to a particular form of “aggressiveness” found at the heart of industrial societies in their advanced stages. It is worth noting his thoughts in full so as to appreciate the scope of his analysis, set in late 1960s America:

“The brutalization of language and image, the presentation of killing, burning and poisoning and torture inflicted upon the victims of neocolonial slaughter, is made in a commonsensible, factual, sometimes humorous style, which integrates these horrors with the pranks of juvenile delinquents, football contests, accidents, stock market reports, and the weatherman. This is no longer the ‘classical’ heroizing of killing in the national interest, but rather its reduction to the level of natural events and contingencies of daily life.”[5]

While professional athletes have always had numbers on the backs of their jerseys, never before has their collective value been so utterly instrumentalized on behalf of another purpose, or “game,” in their respective sports’ histories. We saw in real-time how cultural warfare could unfold in primetime as first the military paid the NFL for airtime and then various NFL players began leveraging their platforms on behalf of causes close to their communities (police brutality) often times against the president’s wishes. Regardless of the content in question, each group subjected the game of football itself to larger agendas of race, class, and nationhood. To study fantasy football’s ascent in American popular culture is to track the making of religion itself as it organizes and makes possible various renderings of the universe and its inhabitants. It structures possibility through the creation of institutions, traditions, rituals, and stories of origin. While my own story may read like one of declension, its intent is just the opposite- to offer a note of caution against an otherwise deafening gale of applied mathematics, algorithmic efficacy, and analytical precision otherwise known, as Fantasy Sports.

L. Benjamin Rolsky, Research Fellow in Religion Studies at Lehigh University, received his PhD from Drew University in American Religious Studies. His research and teaching interests include religion and politics, the study of popular culture, and critical theory. Rolsky is currently completing a manuscript entitled ,”Norman Lear and the Spiritual Politics of Religious Liberalism,” which is under contract with Columbia University Press. Once complete, he plans to begin research on a second book project that examines the history of the Christian Right across the 20th century. You can learn more about Benji by visiting his website at benjirolsky.com.

[1] Much of my own education in the ways of the NFL and sports talk radio in general would not be what it is today without the countless hours spent listening to the Michael Kay Show on 98.7 ESPN Radio in New York city. Thanks go out to Michael Kay, Don LaGreca, and Peter Rosenberg (and their producers) for putting on a fantastic show that is both informative and entertaining each and every day. In fact, a forthcoming piece takes up one of Don’s descriptions of the Mayweather/McGregor fight (along with Lavar Ball and others) as an example of a helpful category in the study of spectacle and entertainment- “the Clown Show.” In terms of this type of material broadly considered, I would go so far as to say that sports talk radio remains a significantly underexplored area of research for both scholars of the humanities and social sciences when it comes to issues of race, class, and religion.

[2] For an abridged transcript, refer to the following: http://www.giants.com/news-and-blogs/article-1/Quotes-GM-Dave-Gettleman-Press-Conference/6c7c74b1-e314-461e-b4c5-34c8a083137e

[3] https://www.fantasyindex.com/resources/the-birth-of-fantasy-football

[4] For more, see here: https://www.sas.com/en_us/insights/analytics/predictive-analytics.html

[5] Herbert Marcuse, “Aggressiveness in Advanced Industrial Society,” in The Religious Situation: 1969 edited by Donald R. Cutler (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1969): 423-440.

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