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Not Your Father’s NFL

Are you ready for some Fantasy Football? If not, get with the program -- because fantasy leagues are changing how sports fans appreciate the game. We are moving from cheering blindly for the home team to creating teams in our homes.

Is this approach to the NFL bad for the game? No. While I have nostalgic memories of Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith leading the Cowboys to Super Bowl glory, those are rare high points for a fan. With fantasy football every season has the potential for triumph even when my favorite team has a mediocre season. Even better, my love of a team grew to a broader love for the game.

Every day for six months I have been watching. Watching and waiting with all the big questions: Is Ricky coming back? Will the Patriots take a tumble? Paid consultants are out there digging up information on these and other football matters. Not so I can root for my home team but so I can - like Dr. Frankenstein - put together the pieces that will be my creation. I want to be like Al - Al Davis.

Where is loyalty? By caring about statistics have we watered down our passion for a team?

It may be only the start of NFL camps but we fantasy football addicts of the nation are already stalking the internet daily to stay on top of teams and, most importantly, skill players. On my team I am in charge of everything. I am all-powerful, which goes to show that fantasy football turns all of us into, if not the Black Prince Al Davis, then at least Redskin minordomo Dan Snyder. Now every Monday morning quarterback thinks he knows how to manage too.

Fantasy football is a season-long competition pitting the participant’s selected offensive teams against those chosen by opponents. For example, my championship winning team last year started Ahman Green, the Packers’ running back, in tandem with Brian Westbrook of the Eagles.

Fantasy football participants are like general managers, drafting a team and then trading players like so many bubblegum cards on a school playground. If, as Adam Smith surmised, we humans love to “truck, barter, and exchange” it should not be surprising that fantasy football has emerged as a profoundly popular way to be a fan of the NFL today. And it is popular: a Google search in 2003 returned over four million sites and now it is 9,690,000.

National sports stalwarts ESPN, Sports Illustrated, and CBS have recognized the significant market we fantasy nuts represent and they provide high quality web interfaces for leagues. Many internet entrepreneurs offer subscription services promising to give you an edge by crunching the most arcane of statistics and tracking every training camp rumor. Last season, NFL broadcasters CBS, Fox and ESPN, began highlighting the top performers in different categories for information- hungry fantasy fans, some of whom may tune in to the web for up-to-the-second stats rather than watch the game.

Old school football fans point out flaws. My father-in-law perpetually asks, “Where is loyalty?” By caring about statistics have we watered down our passion for a team? Critics worry that a newer generation of fans, raised on fantasy football, will have less fealty to the hometown squad.

I disagree. Fantasy football is good for the NFL and broadcasters because it makes every weekly game interesting. In the past a Browns-Bengals contest was as interesting to me as “two mules fightin’ over a turnip,” to paraphrase Lewis Grizzard. Now, I watch them with interest, often because I am on the perpetual hunt for future stars.

On top of that there are only 32 teams and San Francisco and New York have two teams each, so only 28 cities have hometown teams. Besides, watching the behavior of Philadelphia fans some weeks would make anyone question the virtue of excessive love for the local squad.

Fantasy Football is a good thing and it gives the millions of us that could never play in the NFL new dreams. We’re no longer interested in being a Monday-morning Brady or McNabb anymore. We’re keeping up with the Joneses – the Jerry Joneses.

James Tuten is Assistant Provost and Assistant Professor of History at Juniata College.