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Fantasy sports desensitize fans to athlete health

By Tommy Osborne, November 1 2016 —

When fall returns NFL fans rejoice  — not only because they can watch their favourite teams, but also because it means another season of fantasy football.

The online game that allows players to construct a team and compete with friends has become an important aspect of sport culture. Fantasy football is a popular pastime for NFL fans  — nearly 75 million people played in 2015. But fantasy sports also play a large role in the commodification of professional athletes.

Fantasy sports desensitize fans to the fact that NFL players are actually human beings and not just a source of entertainment. Many fantasy team owners see athletes as commodities rather than actual people. An athlete can be a powerful addition to a fantasy roster, but beyond that, their experience as a person can be entirely forgotten

An extreme example of this was seen in 2013, when one fan tweeted to former New York Giants running back Brandon Jacobs, “If you don’t rush for 50 yards and 2 touchdowns tonight it’s over for you and yo family.” Jacobs, who ended up not playing that night due to injury, received another tweet that said, “Fulfill my orders in the previous tweet or that’s yo life bruh (sic) and I’m not playing”

Other fans also voiced their anger towards Jacobs, tweeting about how their fantasy teams suffered as a result of his injury.

“Next time tell us you’re not playing before I have to set my lineup #Ilostbecauseofyou,” one fan tweeted.

Fantasy sports have undeniably impacted the way that fans consume sport entertainment. But fans who compete in fantasy leagues need to realize that being a professional athlete is a job. Players don’t play to help fantasy teams win. Athletes play sports to support themselves.

Understandably, Jacobs is not a big supporter of fantasy football, calling it a “huge problem” in an interview with ESPN in 2013.

“That’s all people ever talk about,” Jacobs said. “You sit down to eat at a restaurant and people say ‘hey you, I got you on my fantasy team, you gotta do something for me.’”

Jacobs is not the only victim of the fantasy football craze. Pressure to perform by fantasy football fans can be a major problem for professional athletes, especially when they are dealing with an injury.

Minnesota Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater tore his ACL in a training camp this year. Following his injury, articles dominated headlines on websites like Bleacher Report and ESPN that consisted of the impact his time off would have on fantasy football. Articles focused on how a team should proceed going forward without Bridgewater, potential waiver wire pickups to replace him and how this affects other fantasy players around him, rather than the impact his injury would have on his psychological and physical performance. To Bridgewater, a serious injury puts his career at risk. But to fantasy players, he became a defect that needed replacing.

While fantasy is a popular form of sport entertainment  — and certainly very fun to play  — fantasy owners need to start taking into account that athletes compete and perform for a living. Playing sports isn’t meant to satisfy the appetites of fantasy fans.

Professional athletes make millions of dollars a year to put their bodies and minds at risk. It’s a full-time job that’s as consuming  — if not more so  — than working at an office desk. Fantasy sports have the potential to increase the visibility and entertainment value of professional sports. But when athletes are taken out of a human context, the craze has the potential to put an athlete’s mental health at risk. Online abuse has a lasting and damaging effects on the health and safety of athletes.

So the next time you feel the urge to heckle your top prospect for an injury, take a step back and remember that behind every athlete is more than just stats and performance  there’s a person there too.

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