As much as it pains me to admit it, summer is almost over. That means it’s time for fall, and for many sports fans, that means football. Working on this issue of the Kernel got me thinking about the sport’s appeal. It used to be said that baseball is America’s pastime, but by most every measure, it’s football that now holds that crown. I think there’s a reason that football more suits the national mood right now, and it’s got something to do with that well-worn buzzword, “innovation.”
See, baseball can often seem timeless; part of its appeal lies in continuity, in a connection to rich heritage. There’s tradition—the seventh-inning stretch—and nostalgia: Field of Dreams is the distilled essence of baseball’s evocation of an unbroken seam binding the present to the past. Football, in its current hypercapitalist American incarnation (if that’s not a redundancy) as the NFL, is more likely to move fast and break stuff. Despite being a multibillion dollar behemoth, as a sport—no, as an entertainment—it seems more adapted to the times. Football seems to tap into a core American restlessness, a desire for the new new thing.
Not everyone is a fan. Steve Almond, author of Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto, argues that not everyone should be: The NFL, he says, is built on huge tax subsidies to billionaire owners; it exploits a largely African-American underclass that often has few other career options than to pursue professional sports; and, finally, the sport itself is inherently dangerous. Cheering for it, he argues, is akin to cheering for men to cause themselves permanent, irreparable brain damage. As a former fan, he has a conflicted relationship with the game which brought him closer to his father—sports make for easy camaraderie. He and Ramon Ramirez hash out their complex feelings toward the game in this issue’s Q&A.
With its ceaseless (and yes, profit-driven) innovation, professional football seems to tap into a core American restlessness, a desire for the new new thing.
When Almond began writing about football, he was surprised at the amount of hate mail he received. It was angry, vitriolic stuff about what was, to be clear, a game. But the same feelings that bond fans to a team can turn them into an ugly mob when they feel the team is threatened. As Josh Katzowitz details in his feature on #FSUTwitter, off-field controversies around Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston drew the media’s attention to the team. When several unflattering but accurate articles subsequently appeared, Florida State fans lashed out, abusing reporters and even students. It’s helped #FSUTwitter earn the reputation as one of Twitter’s worst online mobs.
Of course, most football fans are not bile-spewing monsters. Many of the game’s most dedicated fans are content to immerse themselves in it as fully as possible. The most recent (and lucrative) way to do so is through fantasy football. As Jon Ridewood details, even that area of the game is ripe for innovation. Clever lobbying by the NFL led to a loophole exempting fantasy sports from the Internet gambling laws that ultimately killed online poker; that same loophole offered an opportunity for FanDuel and DraftKings, the titans that pioneered daily fantasy sports. By speeding up fantasy football and turning it into a 24/7 affair, they grabbed a mass audience—and the attention of media giants and Silicon Valley investors. They also created something that looks suspiciously like, well, regular old gambling. Ridewood asks whether the courts will step in and whether the daily fantasy sports revolution can last.
One person probably hoping it will last is Dave Richard, who went from living in his parents’ house in the late ’90s to today being one of fantasy football’s most trusted experts. He’s turned his passion into his job, found a wife who shares that passion, and only occasionally has to face the wrath of thousands of fantasy players when he recommends a bad pick. It’s not a bad gig for a guy who, before fantasy football, didn’t really know what he was going to do with his life.
Not every fantasy football story has such a happy ending. With fantasy sports starting to resemble gambling to some critics, some are asking whether people can become addicted to the game. These can become high-stakes bets, with thousands of dollars riding on a single play. For some fantasy players, that’s great; it provides just the rush they want. Others can’t quit while they’re ahead—or behind.
Finally, we leave the world of fantasy football behind to venture out onto the actual gridiron, where technology is helping to reshape the game. As more NFL teams look to gain a competitive advantage, several are experimenting with virtual reality. It’s new, fascinating, and potentially game-changing.
Enjoy the issue.