There is a bar on the Upper West Side of Manhattan called Brother Jimmy's. It caters to the twentysomething crowd, and most nights it is filled with a rowdy mix of young New Yorkers, postgame softball players and sports fans who watch the Yankees and the Knicks on the array of televisions that dot the walls. On Sundays during the fall, however, as happens at many sports bars, there's a different breed of customers.
They show up early, hours before the NFL games start, and take over the best tables. Once the action starts, they swivel in their chairs like tennis umpires, looking from one screen to the next. They care as much about the 55-10 blowouts as the 20-19 nail-biters and not because of a point spread or hometown allegiance. They hoot and holler over 20-yard screen passes and successful field goals, though never about a tackle, no matter how bone-jarring it may be. They care not who wins or who loses, so long as a particular set of players--their players--do well. They are, of course, the fantasy football players, and they're not only supremely annoying to sit next to if you're interested in actually watching a game, but they are also changing the nature of NFL fandom.
There was a time when the only people who felt compelled to keep tabs on every NFL game were hard-core fans, sportswriters and sports bettors. Now, because of fantasy football, Sunday has become a day of checking stats, a 10-hour block of time devoted to calculating Ricky Williams's rushing totals and cursing Quincy Carter's incompletions. Every game is meaningful to someone, and every player who can pass, catch, run or kick is important in some way.
If the NFL had tried, it could not have concocted a more successful sales pitch for the game. In fact, one surmises that, had it been the league that had launched fantasy football rather than the fans, it might not have caught on. Frustrated by the stingy ownership, crummy coaching and inevitably porous defense of your hometown team? You don't need to be tethered to the franchise when you can create your own fantasy team. Make the moves you wish management had made, all without worrying about clashing egos, locker-room combustion or luxury box sales. Who cares if you are the only one rooting for them?
Of course, there are victims (and not just those who are subjected to the minutiae of a fantasy player's weekly performance). For every Matt Hasselbeck, the Seahawks quarterback whose stature has risen as a fantasy star, there are 10 offensive linemen who now find themselves buried even further into obscurity. Because of the scoring system--which generally counts individual offensive stats but only team defensive ones--the game only enforces the existing gridiron stereotypes. So the glory goes to the all-American quarterback, the action-hero running back and the narcissistic wide receiver, while the inside linebacker remains a faceless member of a larger whole denoted simply as the defense. It matters not who blocks for the fullback on that 40-yard run, only that he made it. Likewise, punters are rendered irrelevant; fantasy football nation cares not whether your hang time was five seconds or you angled your punt into the coffin corner, only that you hurry up and get on with it so someone can attempt a pass.
Field goal kickers, on the other hand, have enjoyed a heightened profile because of their statistical value. Long derided by fellow players and fans, they have suddenly become--at least in the world of fantasy football--more important than cornerbacks and (most of the time) tight ends. Maybe this is why Patriots clutch kicker Adam Vinatieri appeared in a commercial for NFL.com's fantasy game in 2002.
The most satisfying reversal may be the decreased stature of coaches, historically lauded in a cult of personality--Bill Walsh, starring as The Genius, Jimmy Johnson as The Man With Immovable Hair, and so on. Bearing no statistical value in fantasy games and supplanted as decision-maker by you, the team owner, they have become unimportant (unless, of course, they aren't calling enough plays for your wide receiver). It is a populist role reversal that seems fitting for a populist game: the field goal kicker, the player who most resembles the common man (dare we call him the proletariat of the NFL?) riding a paradigm shift to become more powerful than the coach, he of the ruling class and the bourgeoisie. Viva the fantasy revolution!
JONATHAN DANIEL/GETTY IMAGES
Only being there tops fantasy for fans.