With leagues now out in open, players have no reason to hide

ON FANTASY SPORTS

Commentary

November 03, 2005|By CHILDS WALKER

You remember when playing fantasy sports was a little embarrassing?

You'd talk about it with others who played at work or school but you didn't exactly fly a flag saying, "I spend five hours a week obsessing over make-believe games." And you waited maybe a month or two before explaining the whole thing to a new girlfriend.

My wife accepted it pretty much in stride, one of many signs that she was a keeper and a queen of tolerating the inexplicable.

But 10 years down the line, that all has changed.

You no longer need to shove your fantasy habits in a drawer when surrounded by respectable folk. Because, as all the major sports leagues have discovered, everybody does it. Well, 15 million people anyway. And guess what? Some of them are cool by the old high school standard - jocks and beautiful people and such.

I spent the first week of September with the Washington Nationals as the team fought to stay in contention. And I was amazed how much the players bantered about fantasy football. They loved to critique each other's picks, and not just on a surface level. These dudes were seriously debating the qualities of fourth-line receivers.

The NFL, meanwhile, has pushed star power behind its fantasy products.

Players such as Peyton Manning and LaDainian Tomlinson have cut commercials endorsing the league's fantasy game. The NFL Network features a celebrity league in which actors (not A-list ones, granted) compete and appear weekly to discuss their player moves.

The NFL Players Association runs a game in which fans can match fantasy wits with former stars such as Thurman Thomas, Fran Tarkenton and Jack Youngblood.

Youngblood, a seven-time Pro Bowl selection at defensive end, said he has been playing fantasy football since the early 1990s.

"I think it's awfully interesting, a unique sort of interaction with fans who have an intense passion for the game," he said. "They want more, more and more all the time."

The man who once played 2 1/2 playoff games with a broken leg has little use for those who disrespect his fantasy brethren.

"Some people have a disdain for it, but what makes it so nerdish?" Youngblood said. "It's just a way for people to get closer to the game."

Youngblood said his only problem with the game is a tendency to pick guys such as Brett Favre and Tom Brady, who appeal to him but don't always post great numbers. He said he doesn't mind that the game glorifies offensive players over defensive stalwarts such as him.

"That's the way it's always been," he said, laughing. "We're just the workhorses out there, and the pretty boys get all the credit."

By using its players to promote fantasy, the NFL and its players union are taking steps beyond the tacit endorsement professional leagues offered as fantasy games gained popularity in the late 1980s and early '90s.

Baseball people, especially, showed ambivalence to fantasy players, with some deriding statistical-minded owners and general managers as "rotisserie geeks."

Such attitudes have softened in all the major sports, as the fantasy industry has grown into a multibillion-dollar-a-year colossus.

The NBA and Major League Baseball offer fantasy games on their Web sites and NBATV features a fantasy show. But the NFL has stood out in recognizing that fantasy players are among its most fervent consumers.

The league began offering fantasy products five years ago, after a study found that fantasy football players attend 3 1/2 games a season and watch two to three hours more football each week than non-players.

It's kind of strange to see it all so legitimized. I didn't mind being part of a cult. Guess I'll have to resort to pro wrestling or vintage Kung Fu movies for those sorts of thrills from now on.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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