I love fantasy sports. Since I started playing in the early 1990s, I’ve been involved in fantasy football, baseball, basketball, NASCAR, college football and golf. But football was, and is for most people, the gateway game into fantasy sports. Fantasy players used to hold drafts in private; now you can go onto mainstream sites, like NFL.com, and play in the open.
But I pay much less attention to the game than I used to, and what attention I do give the sport is because of fantasy football. Why? Mainly because football — and I do love to watch the games — has become a shit show. I discovered fantasy football is much easier to handle than reality football.
I started looking at football a bit differently after Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was investigated for sexual assault in Georgia in 2010. That year seemed to be a jumping-off point for high-profile incidents of NFL players getting into both major and minor off-field legal trouble. According to a database of NFL-player arrests compiled by USA Today, there have been 869 player arrests since 2000. Since 2010, that number is 359. And that doesn’t even include cases, like Roethlisberger’s, or Kansas City’s Javon Belcher — who killed his girlfriend in December 2012 and then himself in front of team officials — because charges were never filed.
Belcher’s actions bring up another issue, that of CTE, a degenerative brain disease linked to repeated concussions, such as those that can occur in football. CTE causes erratic behavior, as well as memory problems and depression. The condition can only be diagnosed post-mortem, but it has been found in dozens of former NFL players, including Pittsburgh’s Mike Webster, San Diego legend Junior Seau and Chicago’s Dave Duerson.
By 2010, I had had enough. Especially in the ongoing case of Roethlisberger. He had already been sued in 2008 by a woman in Lake Tahoe, Nev., accusing him of sexual assault. In that case, the victim was put on trial publicly. Every quirk she displayed was blown up to the point where the public did not believe her. Besides, if she was telling the truth, people asked, why weren’t there criminal charges? It was all the usual bullshit excuses we employ to let a popular public figure off the hook. Once the Georgia case surfaced in 2010, though, the first lawsuit was quietly settled. Since then there has been a steady stream of horrible incidents involving NFL players mistreating women, including the 2014 incident in which then-Baltimore Raven Ray Rice knocked his girlfriend out with a single punch before dragging her out of an Atlantic City hotel elevator.
For its part, the NFL has handled everything badly and continues to do so. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell bungled the Rice case, ignoring the seriousness of it until went public. Meanwhile, the league has taken a hard-nosed stance against players who recreationally use marijuana. Take Steelers wide receiver Martavis Bryant. Bryant missed all of the 2016 season after a second suspension for marijuana use. Yes, weed is banned by the NFL (it shouldn’t be, but it is a condition of employment), but an entire season? Really? Bryant is now back, off weed and ready to beat the world (he dominated Minnesota’s secondary on Sept. 17). But if he slips and smokes again, he receives an indefinite suspension. Meanwhile, games are filled every week with guys fresh off the pages of the police blotter.
The website NFLarrests.com tracks player arrests. According to the site, domestic-violence cases result in the third-highest numbers of player arrests, behind DUI cases and drug-related arrests, respectively.
While it’s still a popular game, professional football’s reputation has taken a hit and lost fans. Honestly, though, I don’t know if I’ll ever completely stop watching. I love the game of football. I’m just not crazy about the NFL, or some of the people playing it.
I believe a game that protects its players’ safety and a league that doesn’t tolerate aberrant behavior by its personnel can become a reality. But that can never happen until fans demand a better product and stop buying into the fantasy.