Though fantasy sports have been around for decades, it has not been until fairly recently that they have been accepted as more than just a pastime for “sports geeks.” And for much of the history of fantasy sports, athletes have seemed to dismiss them as bothers, as strange obsessions of superfans. But now that fantasy sports are part of the mainstream (maybe not “squarely” part of the mainstream, but a part of it, nonetheless), what do the athletes who we draft think about the hobby? BleacherReport.com tried to find the answer.
Bleacher Report interviewed 24 current NFL players (small sample size warning) to try to get a better understanding of player opinions and fantasy football practices. Though not a large percentage admitted to actually playing fantasy football, almost all of them appreciated it and felt it was good for the NFL. Just 10 of the 24 players admitted to participating, though of the 21 who were asked on its impact on the sport, all but one said it had a positive effect; that one dissenter was neutral.
Cleveland Browns quarterback Josh McCown said, “I think it’s helped in the sense that it brings in a fan or someone who might not necessarily be a football fan or might not necessarily have a reason to watch on the weekend. Anything that brings more eyes to the sport. The genuine interest in fantasy football is a good thing.”
More than one player commented that fantasy sports have brought women into the fold, in particular.
A total of 21 players gave an estimate on how prevalent they thought fantasy sports participation was throughout the league. Three, all from the Vikings, thought 75 percent of players in the NFL were also fantasy football owners. They were on the high side, though – twelve thought the figure was 33 percent or less. One, Panthers cornerback Teddy Williams, put the percentage at just one percent, which either means he is lying or completely oblivious.
It would not be surprising if more than 10 of the surveyed players participated. They might not want teammates or coaches to think they aren’t focusing on their jobs, they might not want people to think that their play would be affected by their fantasy roster, or they might put money on it and not want to get in trouble for gambling.
Speaking of which, the NFL told Bleacher Report that fantasy sports are allowed amongst players as long as they don’t wager money and don’t accept a prize of more than $250. Only 13 players offered up estimates as to how many players compete in fantasy football for money, but Vikings kicker Blair Walsh said, “It’s not worth the trouble. To me, it’s about talking smack to my friends.”
Bengals linebacker Trevor Roach, though, begged to differ, guessing that 75 percent of those who played fantasy football wagered real money. “Guys bet on everything.”
NFL players stick with what they know
Not surprisingly, NFL players who also participate in fantasy leagues are total homers. Eight of the ten who said they play said they have drafted a teammate. Bengals wide receiver Mohamed Sanu tries to scoop up as many in the orange and black as he can. “Why not draft the people you got confidence in? There are other great players in the league, but you got to draft your boys!” he said.
Then, of course, there was the question about drafting themselves. Answers varied, but most thought that at least half of NFL players drafted themselves. Seven thought everyone did. “Every last one of them if they were able to pick themselves,” Sanu said. “If you don’t, it would be foolish.”
It’s a matter of large egos and confidence in their own ability, players said. Sanu and Vikings receiver Charles Johnson have drafted themselves, though Arizona backup quarterback Drew Stanton never has (one could guess why).
One of the funnier stories came from Colts backup quarterback Matt Hasselbeck (yes, he is still an active player). In 2009 – in an auto-draft – he ended up with himself and then-Vikings quarterback Brett Favre on his team. That was Favre’s first year on the Vikings, the season he was awesome and led them to the brink of the Super Bowl. Hasselbeck always started himself, but he had already missed a couple games with an injury and Favre was off to a 4-0 start. So, for Week 5, Hasselbeck benched himself in favor of the future Hall of Famer. Of course, like always happens when we bench a guy, Hasselbeck went on to throw four touchdowns, while Favre threw just one and tacked on an interception.
It’s still just a game
The one thing that can bother players, though, is how intense some fans get when it comes to fantasy, how they take a player’s failings as a personal affront. Charles Johnson once checked in with social media after Bengals star receiver A.J. Green was hurt during a game and barely put up any stats. “All I saw were fantasy players talking about how they hate him and called him racial slurs because he only scored one point instead of saying, ‘Hope you get well soon and get better,’” he said.
He added, “Some guys take it more serious than others. Fantasy is cool. Just don’t get too out of hand with it. I’m not here to win you fantasy leagues or earn points. I’m ultimately here to win games for the Vikings.”