Twenty years ago this very week, I showed up in an apartment just off Green Street in Champaign, Ill., a newly minted student at the University of Illinois. The only people I knew on campus were guys who had graduated a year before me in high school, so when they invited me over for a "football draft," I sprinted over. It didn't matter that I had no idea what in the world a "football draft" was.
This was my introduction to the world of fantasy football. These were the dark ages of fantasy sports, back when you compiled league stats by scanning USA Today on Monday mornings and everybody had to be in the same room, at the same time, to successfully complete a draft. I had no idea what I was doing, which would have been a problem if anybody else had any idea either. None of us had email addresses, let alone live online drafts; the highest level of technology in the Champaign apartment was someone playing Tecmo Super Bowl on the Super NES.
My draft was terrible. The first-ever draft picks for the Woody Allens, general manager Will Leitch: Barry Foster, Troy Aikman and the Cardinals defense. Those would have been terrible picks had it just been a yearly redraft league -- Foster would rush for nearly 900 yards less than he had the year earlier and would be out of the league in 16 months. But I hadn't read the rules closely enough: This was a lifetime keeper league. Every year, we would keep a whopping 14 players on your roster. Forever.
Twenty years later, I'm still in this league, with (roughly) the same group of people. We long since abandoned the in-person draft: We're all over the country now, and in a couple of cases, all over the world. The only constants I've had in my adult life -- and I was 17 when I did that draft -- have been my family, the Cardinals (St. Louis and Arizona), Illinois basketball and that Woody Allens fantasy football team. The world around those things has swirled dramatically. But those have always been there.
This is not for nothing. The Internet obviously changed fantasy football in dramatic ways, democratizing and commodifying the game, making it easy for everyone to play. Twenty years ago it was sort of nerdy to play fantasy football. Over the next decade, it became universally accepted as an inextricable part of the NFL's appeal. Eventually the NFL -- which had resisted for a weirdly long time -- accepted this and found a way to sell it, own it even: If you go to the NFL.com homepage right now, roughly two-thirds of it revolves around fantasy football. Almost overnight, on television, all the retired players hired as analysts stopped making fun of fantasy football players as geeks, clearly reacting to orders from above: This is part of our bread-and-butter now. Do not alienate our primary audience. Now there's a two-hour show on ESPN2 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Sunday mornings devoted entirely to fantasy football that's so much more entertaining and informative than the "traditional" pregame shows opposite it that's it's sort of embarrassing. Fantasy football has not surpassed actual football in popularity. But it's closer that any of us could have imagined.
I sometimes wonder if this sort of depersonalization of the NFL -- this cold-blooded rationalism, this all-that-matters-is-what-this-guy-can-do-for-my-fantasy-team -- has made it easier for us to ignore the personal toll the game takes on players, allows us to separate their status as stat providers from their status as, well, human beings. This makes sense in a way. Nothing any NFL player ever does -- tearing their ACL, putting on 20 pounds in the offseason, being accused of murder -- has even the slightest bearing on our lives in any palpable way except for how it affects our fantasy football team. Why wouldn't we only see them that way? They only see us as fans, after all; watching someone play sports, or playing sports in front of someone, is not an efficient way of making new friends with them. Still: This personal commodification of the athletic experience allows us, sometimes, to purposely look away from how the sausage is made. It makes it much, much easier.
But what are we, really, but consumers? Fantasy football has grown so much in the 20 years since I first started playing that it can feel like the most honest expression of the fan-to-franchise relationship: You provide me the entertainment, and I will use it how I see fit. It has become so big, and has been going on so long, that one's relationship with his/her fantasy team, particularly in keeper leagues, is more lasting to many than the teams themselves. In my league, the Woody Allens -- thanks to all those keepers -- routinely have players their whole careers. Randy Moss? Tony Gonzalez? Lifetime Woody Allens stars. Those guys moved around from team-to-team in the NFL, but as far as our league was concerned, they were Stan Musial and Derek Jeter and Cal Ripken: Franchise lifers. The experience was the exact opposite of what people criticize fantasy sports for fostering.
One of the main reasons fantasy sports was invented was control; the game was born out of the massive changes free agency was bringing to the world of baseball. We wanted to pick the players we wanted to have around, just like the players were now able to pick their teams. In keeper leagues, particularly ones as extreme as mine (and this is without question the most fun league I'm in), we've reversed this. We've established a more loyal game -- a more stable game -- from the ashes of a sport with shorter careers, shorter job certainty and shorter lifespans than any other one. I cared about Randy Moss in a way I never would have had he played for my Cardinals for two seasons; he was mine for more than a decade.
Fantasy football is honest and pure and logical in a way that the actual NFL isn't, precisely because it both distorts and distills reality. It provides permanence in a sport that abhors it. We're having our 21st draft tonight, and the results of that draft will have an effect, however tiny, on my life over the next 20 years. Nothing that will happen in Week One can do that. Fantasy football is a wonderful supplement to the NFL. But in a pinch, it can actually serve as a replacement. It can even feel like an improvement.