Fantasy Football & the Evolution of Language in 2020
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.