Fantasy Football & the Evolution of Language in 2020

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I was struck recently by a phrase my mother-in-law texted me. She was kind enough to listen to the Fantasy Footballers DFS podcast after Matthew Betz and I recorded for the first time as we talked Best Ball strategy. It was hilarious to think about her downloading our show and trying to decipher what positional allocation meant or who Marvin Jones Jr. could possibly be. Her text was more supportive and more insightful than I could’ve imagined:

Super impressed with your podcast. I had no idea you could speak another language 😂”

I debriefed the conversation with my wife by discussing the implications of what she said and the current state of how language is both acquired, practiced, and changed over time. Perhaps that seems a bit far-fetched for a simple couch-time conversation between a married couple. Nevertheless, we are both teachers and after taking a number of linguistics classes in grad school and seminary, I’m intrigued about the future of our language in a fake sport I love with millions of others around the world that participate every year.

At the Fantasy Footballers, we want to steward the opportunity we have in this space to be forward-thinking, inclusive, and most of all, honoring to the real-life NFL players and people that listen to our podcast each week. Not that our website or podcast is the center of fantasy football conscience, but we want to come alongside others and be part of the change and education that helps foster personal growth to a community willing to listen.

If you’re willing to listen, I want to humbly offer four thoughts related to the future of fantasy football and the way we use our voices (podcast, radio, websites, print media, social media, etc.) to explain and dictate what we are trying to describe. I believe that change, grace, bridge-building, and diversity can be the values that shape fantasy football for the coming years.

Why does language matter?

One of my friends, Dr. Brent Strawn, is a professor at Duke University and he speaks often on the issue of fluency in relation to any ancient text or language. The key signal of a dying language is that it is no longer spoken by children. Strawn and many others note that if a language is not passed on from parents to children, that language “can die as quickly as one generation, perhaps about twenty years”. However, the issue of fantasy football is not the accessibility nor its limited use from one generation to another.

Spend five minutes on the Twittersphere and you’ll see a plethora of fantasy football -isms and opinions willing to be poured out by anyone with an anonymous egg-shaped profile picture. With such an influx of language practitioners in 2020, what gets distilled sometimes is the quality of our verbiage and the clarity we have in describing what we think fantasy football is about. Ultimately, words create worlds, and based on the one we’re living in 2020, I want this to be a world where my children practice kindness, empathy, and deep respect for others.

1. Language can and needs to evolve.

As many fantasy entities have embarked on this journey of how to move forward in the conversation, the reality is many terms in fantasy football are outdated and undermine the humanity of the players we all know and love. Above all else, it is the connection to the human experience that makes us come alive as we are rooting for players rostered on our fantasy teams. There are a number of commonly used fantasy football terms that we intentionally moved away from using with our articles and on the Fantasy Footballers podcast.

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The ‘ownership’ of players does not uphold the dignity and freedom each individual possesses as a citizen of this country. While I am no scholar or history professor, I am a white male born and raised in a part of the country (Georgia) where the echoes of slavery still haunt the memory of some of the towns that bear the names of slave owners.

Ownership refers to property and the people we cheer for each week are not property. They are people worth celebrating with families, histories, and real lives that exist outside of the fantasy world we have helped create. Instead, a simple pivot to the word ‘rostered’ allows for us to mirror what the actual NFL game declares when someone signs on a team. Instead of referring to yourself as a fantasy football owner, the term ‘Manager’ or ‘Fantasy GM’ might be appropriate for the roster moves and transactions made on a weekly basis.

One of the terms popularized is the notion of a ‘handcuff‘ runningback when referring to a backup running back who could fall into a greater workload if the starter would get injured or become inefficient on the field. We’ve even had articles and segments on our show highlighting this term and we want to consciously leave behind this term in the past asking for understanding and grace. People of all races, backgrounds, and worldviews have used handcuff for years so this change is not meant to out any one group or ideology. We all have likely and maybe unintentionally described players this way because language is a process passed down. You heard it from someone else… who heard it from someone else … who heard it from someone else likely on a podcast… live from their mother’s basement.

If you have been using this terminology (like me), realize you don’t need to punish yourself or execute upon vengeance on anyone. Hopefully, no-one was labeling a player as a ‘handcuff’ to demean or incite insensitive remarks upon another. The common diction is based on the dominant, prevailing usage in any language but that can change. Instead of pointing the finger, let’s acknowledge it, ask for forgiveness and understanding, and offer a better way.

These types of players should be seen as ‘backups‘ or an ‘insurance policy‘, not a picture of a shackle or reminder of a past littered with shameful acts of imprisonment.

They are not owned.
They are not chained up.
They are humans.

The goal is to humanize this sport we love. The language needs to evolve because we want our mindsets to change to choose a more excellent way. It’s interesting because, for most of us, these players are more than that…. they are superhuman in their athletic abilities and courage to come through in the clutch. Let’s find a realistic medium knowing they are not invincible nor owned by any other human being. We do not yell at players for underperforming for us. They are just like us… free to live, move, and be.

Will Newton/Getty Images

There are many more small language changes that Yahoo Fantasy, among many others, recently has clarified in a Washington Post article. We applaud the steps that can be forged together but also acknowledge it is but the beginning. A couple of language changes feels admittedly weak and the smallest of offerings I can bring. But what I have to offer, even if it is small, it’s also my “all” as a writer.

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Words ultimately have power and although these are small transitions, I hope that anyone who plays fantasy football would consider the implications of these words to different hearers. Whether you are in a home league, a casual office league, or you play competitively, language evolves because of the needs of the people. Technology and the racial issues that have confronted our country head-on while quarantined in this pandemic have formed an opportune time for learning and for action.

2. Give grace to the language learners.

With these changes involved, realize that there is a process to language acquisition and grace to language learners. If someone unintentionally uses a term such as “owner” or “ownership percentage”, instead of exposing them on Twitter, use the opportunity to start a real conversation… about fake football. It’s difficult to even convey what I truly mean in this article using language.

I have two sons. Houston is 4 and Truman is 1. Our house is a non-stop wrestling match and most days, I love it. They are both at different levels of their contribution to our family and their development of communication. I have never seen Houston scold Truman, in any manner, for his lack of nuance or incessant babbling. He’s young, he’s prone to yell or whine, and yet, we are willing to work with him daily to develop his language. There is a giant difference between immaturity and rebellion. The only way we can truly separate those two is through relationship. Knowing someone and knowing why they speak the way they do comes in time. Not on a Twitter timeline.

If you’ve been on Twitter for a while, you understand the inferno of trolling and “one-upsmanship” that occurs when anyone gives a fantasy football take. In a space that has been dominated in the past by who can yell the loudest, 2020 hopefully has taught all of us to be “quick to listen and slow to speak“. For any new language learner, their biggest issue is the annoying frustration of not being able to communicate and convey the ideas and thoughts they stewed on. As anyone is developing their opinions on certain players, give room for mistakes, and begin the process of actually talking and not barking at one another.

We recently put out the call for new writers to join our writing staff at the Fantasy Footballers. Our three newest team members (Kacey Kasem, Marvin Elequin, and Peter Chung… give them a follow!) will be given the opportunity to step into a genuine yet infantile stage of developing our fantasy football language and utilizing best practices. We can learn so much if we give one another the chance and impart grace to those who listen.

3. Language builds bridges, not moats.

Everything I’ve said thus far might be pushed off as insignificant fantasy football jargon and a hopeless “woke” attempt to actually begin to make changes for the better. But we need to start somewhere. As the great Arthur Ashe once said, “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”

I am 33 years old. Although I may feel established in my job in my home with my wife and my two children, the process of excavating who I am as a person is on-going. In order for myself and others to truly connect in a community, I need to learn the art of bridge-building over just being part of the demolition team. It’s easy to tear down someone’s argument, someone’s worldview, and someone’s mistaken fantasy football opinion as you transform their hot take into hot trash.

The price of admission for simple kindness is footing the bill of being ‘right’, rude, and self-focused. In other words, the price is worth it. Kindness does not equal weakness. It’s power contained in a life-sized box of consideration, thoughtfulness, and laying down the right to be proved right again and again.

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Hear me out: There is room for disagreement. I acknowledge that my convictions, values, and worldview do not always align with every single person I come in contact with much less than my undying support for Panthers WR Curtis Samuel in 2020 often gets met with disdain. Disagreeing with someone does not wholly invite a host of hatred, bigotry, or trolling. Andy, Mike, and Jason helped instill in me a culture of honor and refraining from cursing because we want our children to be able to listen without hindrance. I want to use what I’m saying about a “silly little fake football game” so my kids can eventually be bridged into enjoying and respecting others in this space.

Why would someone build a bridge? To talk and to interact with people that might feel and think differently.

4. Historically marginalized voices will shape the future of fantasy football.

One of the other main reasons linguists describe a change in language is the fact that no two persons have had congruent experiences in this world. No-one is a carbon copy and no-one quite understands what it is like to walk in someone else’s shoes. Unfortunately, the fantasy football space has long been described as white… and male. While part of this is the reality based on the population demographics that make up our country, the major error is when fantasy football and its jargon becomes a place of marked, exclusive identity.

When language is used to construct a border rather than a bridge, we’ve lost the inherent value of the gift of language and life. Language is not a right; it is a gift. We respond much differently when a gift is placed in our hands. We know we are not the ones who generated it and hopefully instead receive it with humility and stewardship. We now have the opportunity to use language as a tool for change instead of a weapon of warfare.

Before my mentions are lit on fire… beyond the various persons, groupings, and expressions that I fail to mention, my goal is to highlight the primary shared experience for any marginalized person in this industry… football. From my “place of privilege”, no-one has ever asked if I was qualified to enjoy or comment on football based on my gender or race or sexuality. In the way we speak and interact (especially on Twitter… dear God help us), let us listen.

There is a myriad of people and statistics (hey I’m a fantasy football editor… I had to sneak a couple in) that hopefully help paint a multicultural canvas of who is enjoying the same sport we all do.

In 2017, the Fantasy Sports Trade Association (now known as FSGA) claimed that one in every three fantasy participants were female. This is starting to be reflected and noticed even more among fantasy football writers, editors, and contributors. I want to champion some of the bravest women I know. Our own Lauren Carpenter has busted her tail to be a voice in this industry and recently was hired to be part of the Rotoworld writing team. ESPN’s Stephania Bell and Yahoo’s Liz Loza are among the famous female names but they wouldn’t want the list to stop there. Their support for emerging women in this field is contagious. Over the last year, the Ball Blast Football Girls (Kate and Michelle Magdziuk) have gained an insane following in such a short time and now are part of the Ross Tucker podcast network. Women aren’t going away folks! Especially the kind of women with the gumption and drive to be a voice for those millions of women that do love this sport as well!

In a league with over 70 percent of the players being African American, it is sometimes confusing to see an NFL fan base made up of almost 75 percent whites. Yet, there are persons of color in the fantasy community who actually do share the life experiences of being an African American with dignity and honor through a shameful time we call 2020. If this year has taught us (us being the white male majority) anything, I desperately need someone outside of my affairs to paint a clearer and more holistic picture of what the fantasy landscape actually could be. NFL’s Marcas Grant has been a longtime mainstay in many people’s living rooms. His insights on Twitter and conversational style make him one of the leading African American fantasy voices. Grant and SI’s Corey Parson are among the most well-known, full-time persons of color in fantasy but there are a number of emerging voices such as Ray Garvin, Eric Moody, Will Priester, and Troy King, among many others.

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I also want to clearly make known my own blind spots and shortcomings in recognizing the voices out there. Heck, the internet and Twitter is a deep universe of conversation that I have only begun to take part in. Please give me grace (as I desire to give others) to listen and discover the voices on the fringe or marginalized from the mainstream fantasy football world.

There is a deep need for mainstreaming historically marginalized voices because our fantasy football language is evolving. For some, the threat of change is an “assumed assault” on what they hold most precious. To flip the narrative, perhaps there is a greater understanding, appreciation, and four-course meal of enjoyment of that comes from sitting at the table of someone not from your hometown, your fantasy league, and your “neck of the woods”.

Conclusion

If you’ve stuck around long enough through this pseudo-linguistic, half-fantasy football, partially mentioning my mother-in-law piece, I thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak. I’m a fantasy football writer and editor. What I do is largely based on the voice I’ve carved out (mostly among the supportive #FootClan) as I’m stumbling and bumbling through how to describe football. Often I’m grasping for words, phrases, and statistics to illustrate what I think I’m seeing.

I want to leave you with that thought: we only speak and see in part. Don’t get me wrong there are deep-seated values and convictions I share that define my destiny. And yet, I’m a flawed individual with a limited picture of the world and its vast diversity. I’m like a fish swimming inside a murky fishbowl trying to comment on the greater world that I am actually living in. In other words, let us grow and use our words to build bridges, give grace, and promote diversity as we talk about fake things for a real football world filled with real people that really matter.

Comments

RoyHobbs says:

Fantastic article. I noticed some language change on the podcast and had not seen this article so I wondered if this was a change in the industry. I agree with all of the positive things that have been said here. For the negative ones I would just ask you to think about other people for a moment. Maybe you are not offended by those words, or you aren’t familiar with their historical context, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, or that someone else is not offended by it. This isn’t about politics, it’s about human kindness. Just as Kyle has asked, try listening first, and then try listening again. You may find that there is something important there. Words are important, and they lead to actions. If we all used words that were kinder, maybe the world would be a better place, not just because of the words, but because of what it would lead to.
“Watch your thoughts, they become your words; watch your words, they become your actions; watch your actions, they become your habits; watch your habits, they become your character; watch your character, it becomes your destiny.” -Lao Tzu

Thanks to Kyle and the Footballers!

Baguaboy says:

Couple things to add: The term ‘owner’ is referring to the “Owner of the team” which is just the same as in real world NFL. Also, the “owner of the contract” freely entered into by both parties. Is there an objection to using these terms in the real world of the NFL? If not, then I don’t see how these terms would be objectionable in Fantasy. For us to be more careful in our words would be to say “who own’s Kamara’s contract?” And, that’s annoying, so we do what humans always do, we use shorthand “Who’s got Kamana?” or “Who owns Kamara?” We shorten “Kamara’s contract owner” to “Kamara’s owner.” Does anyone actually think that by using this shorthand, we cultivate a sense that “Alvin Kamara is a piece of property to be used,” as if he were a slave? No. The only thing owned is his productivity as a professional football player, specifically because he freely sold that (entered into a contract) and got paid a shit ton of money.

I think the reason there’s any attraction to this idea of there being a problem with using the term “owner” is ironically, not because of the words we use, but because of how actual NFL players are “used” by the huge money-making-machine that top tier professional sports is. I say ironic, because if the real problem is the actual world behavior, then shifting our language in this way would only OBSCURE the real harm that is happening. The harm, if there is any, wouldn’t be in the words we use, it would be in the real life economic relations of commercializing human activity to maximize profit. These efforts at changing our language would only support the real exploitation that’s happening by ‘gaslighting’ it so it seems like it’s not even happening. “Oh, they’re just being managed.”

I say, either embrace the commercial for-profit professional sport we have and use the language that accurately describes it, or object to something real, how real pro players are commodified and dehumanized by the real system of contracts and ownership of their labor, and fight against that. The real Fantasy here is the notion that the words we use “cause” the harm, and that what’s important is to change the words.

Thank you for such a well thought out and written article. Fantasy football (like everything for me) is a better place when it’s inclusive and welcoming for all. Appreciated and keep up your great work!

jkosmatka says:

I was also very touched by Andy’s statement in the wake of the Floyd George protests.

jkosmatka says:

Appreciate this article a lot. I’d like you also to consider the words “buck” and “stud” in light of the way they were used to refer to enslaved Black men. “Chattel” and “cattle” have the same root, and that is reflected in the way livestock terms were used for enslaved people.

Brett Nelson says:

Awesome article Kyle! This was the best read I’ve ever had on the fantasy footballers website by a mile. I always appreciate when the people I support have the conviction to uphold their beliefs even if it’s the hard thing to do. Could not have been an easy decision to post this, but I appreciate the integrity. I learned something from this article and will also try to be better. Thanks for all you do, and like Mike said let’s be excellent to each other.

Anonymous says:

Big thumbs down to this article. Mixing fantasy and politics is never a good idea. To assume that even the minority of the fantasy population is offended by the word “handcuff” is completely asinine. I’m sure a professional athlete would be much more offended by being called a “backup rb” opposed to a handcuff. Let’s not write fantasy articles and try to be politically correct. Bad recipe.

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anonymous says:

Gee this got unnecessarily heated pretty quickly. It’s almost like the political climate is highly divisive and should be separated from fantasy football. Who woulda thunk?

@Eric there were plenty of points made that you could have addressed if you had the desire or ability to. It seems you are only interested in spewing ad hominem attacks and basely assuming the identity and broad political beliefs of those that disagree with you. It is very clear who here is the ignorant one.

Btw, the fact that I have to post anonymously is an indictment on the current state of the discourse and people like you who attack the person rather than addressing the argument in any sort of intelligent way. But I assume that irony will be lost on you.

@JL9berg14 similar to Eric, you choose to assume the race of Kyle’s detractors and the race of those they associate with. My race, gender identity, sexual preferences, religious beliefs, etc shouldn’t be relevant here at all. That’s kinda the whole point.

Likewise, you chose to ignore addressing any points made and simply extoll the virtue of gaining diverse perspectives. But that’s not we have here. We have a self professed white male giving his perspective. Now the identity of the writer isn’t all that important to me, because that would be definitionally racist and sexist, but it seems to be something that is very relevant to you, so I would think you would take issue with another white guy telling “our black brothers and sisters” what should offend them.

Maybe if I go out and have some real conversations I will learn that if you really want to know how black people feel, you need to ask a white dude from Georgia. Until then I will evaluate this article for what it is, which is meaningless platitudes that are completely unnecessary.

Mike says:

Thanks. Simply thanks. “Start where you can, do what you can do.” Think it’s advice that you’ve take to heart. Regardless of whether people find these terms offensive or not (which I do), its good to start thinking about things through your lens; in this case Fantasy Football. If everyone did this in their own realms, this country would be a better place.

Once again thanks for starting where you could and doing what you felt you could do. Keep challenging others to push beyond their thoughts, racism and fears.

Bscheuer17 says:

Wow. Please do not use your platform for your liberal view points. Very disappointing to see this on your website.

Cris A says:

I am the 2nd “Anonymous” posting:
For the record, I also agree that big changes need to be made to society in terms of racism, sexism and discrimination in general, as well as the things we say to one another. The Black Lives Matter movement is an important movement that needs to be spread and changes need to be made in favor of it. Equality regardless of sex, race, age, gender or gender preference needed to happen yesterday, but we still.fight that fight even today.
But to succumb to these areas of sensitivity and scream for things like “handcuff” to change in fantasy football has the good possibility of doing more bad than good. Because those very “Confederate flag carrying” “MAGA” individuals that you seem to have strong bias against will.point to messages like this and scream, “see, you cant say anything anymore!” And you know what, they are right.
And this is how you label the people that have a different perspective than you? How does that make you look? Not good. I, for sure, am not perfect by any means but I would like to think that I am not ignorant. And to that point, I will say again that I appreciate the message that is being said here, but it is going way too far. Take this same energy and apply it toward the actual societal issues that do not include vocabulary strictly used in fantasy football that zero people ever took offense to.
I think its absurd and see that articles like this prove that we are swinging way too far in the other direction and people should speak up about that also.
– The 2nd Anonymous

JL9berg14 says:

Thanks Kyle and the FFB team for putting this out. Very important and timely.

For those who dismiss what he’s writing as stoking fires that never existed, try to expand your perspective and try to see through the eyes of others, particularly in this context, the eyes of our black sisters and brothers. Have some real conversations about what’s going on, with people who don’t look like you and who don’t come from the same places you come from. If you do, you may become cognizant of a whole world that you didn’t know existed before that’s right under your nose. If you challenge yourselves to be better and more than likely you will meet that challenge. Good luck to you.

Eric says:

Funny, the most ignorant opinions are, naturally, signed ‘Anonymous’. Especially the one crying about statues. Spoken like a true Cult 45 member, with your head proudly shoved up your own @$$ sniffing your own farts. Take your MAGA hat and your Confederate flag and go cry in your safe space until the season starts.

Brandon B says:

Better not call anyone a bust ever again lol.

Anonymous says:

I thought this was a joke all the way until the end.when I saw there was no punchline. I would be curious to know how many people were offended by the word “handcuff” when speaking about a fantasy football player. Or the term “own” when it comes to a player being on a fantasy roster.

Let’s be clear. I get your “message” and actually appreciate the “message” but the context is extremely off. Pointing out terminology to something that I doubt anyone ever though as offensive then saying that it could be offensive to someone is the wrong way to go about it. ANY label to anyone or thing can be offensive. Even descriptive words such as white, black, Hispanic, Asian, etc can be offensive. Why does anyone have to be labeled as a color and how is being a certain color relevant to how offensive a word is? Are we all not human? Pointing out the word “handcuff” and then saying it has negative connotation is very wrong in my opinion. Because it actually doesnt. It is a word that describes a player that is the back up to another player (mainly running back) when used in a fantasy football in this instance. Why search for things that DONT EXIST and make everything a witchhunt? Because that is exactly what this is. A witchhunt.

Yes, even “insurance policy” is dehumanizing because, guess what, you are labeling the player as something other than a player or human. Am I allowed to call them players? Sorry, if I didn’t ask that, I figured you would think I forgot they are humans.

This is trivial. Designed to stir up drama in a place that it hasnt existed. Like tearing down statues of historic figures. Or looting stores and calling it protests. All of it is taking the real message and twisting it in ways that are non applicable to the actual message then calling it “woke”.

Focus these efforts in writing articles about actual words that carry negative connotation if you want. I have no problem with that. Start with the “N word”. That is a real polarizing word that should be addressed in my opinion. Not “handcuff” or “owner”, etc when speaking about FANTASY FOOTBALL.

antoine_weldon says:

Kyle,

As a 29 yr old black male, the terms you pointed have not only given me uneasy feelings sometimes in the fantasy football world, but sports world in general over my lifetime. I am glad you wrote this article to highlight those things and using your voice to spread a positive message to others. Love your work and thanks for helping myself and others feel included.

-Antoine

Kevin says:

Great article. Change is difficult for some people but a little understanding and a little more empathy, could go a REALLY long way. Cheers! 🤙

Al Burtlap says:

Brilliant! Not what I expected with my coffee this morning but so much more meaningful than standard fantasy football content.

I love this inclusive perspective and try my best to live each day that way. That said, you have keyed in here on what is critical and that is to move to action.

I just wanted to say, I really appreciate this article, your perspective on language, our game and the need for nuance to be allowed to exist as we transition toward better ways.

Stephen says:

Love it! This year has definitely helped open my eyes to the way we use words we don’t immediately think of being exclusionary. I work at tech company (another historically white male industry) and we’re actively trying to change our verbiage to be more inclusive. Instead of whitelist/blacklist we’re using allowlist/disallow list, in code branching we’re switching to main instead of master, and are trying to stop using terms like “orphan processes”. Words matter! Appreciate that you dedicating time to making fantasy a place for everyone.

Christopher Baker says:

Stunning. Thank you for using your platform to be examples of excellent men who enjoy a game, while remembering just that: a game played by humans. Regardless of what comes at you because of this statement, you all should be proud of yourselves. Never doubt that.
-Chris (US Navy veternan)

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