Eli Manning is coming off another triumph at the Super Bowl. Tim Tebow sells a lot of jerseys. And Dez Bryant is doing a fine job upholding the legacy of the headline-grabbing Dallas Cowboys wide receiver. But the player NFL fans are talking about the most is Houston Texans running back Arian Foster.
This is not because the Texans are now seen as a real Super Bowl contender, after having made the playoffs last season for the first time in the franchise’s brief history. And it’s not just because Foster led the NFL in rushing in 2010, with 1,616 yards, and in offensive yards per game last season, with 141.6, earning the onetime undrafted free agent a five-year, $43.5 million contract extension.
No, what fans obsess over, specifically, and what earned Foster a spot on a recent cover of ESPN The Magazine, are the numbers 238 and 1: Foster’s 2011 fantasy football points (based mostly on earning one point for every ten yards of rushing or receiving and six points for every touchdown) and his 2012 fantasy ranking, respectively. That’s why Foster’s cover co-star was a “unicorn,” posed in such a way that its head covered up the word “Texans” on Foster’s jersey. In fantasy football, players don’t play for the name on the front of the uniform or even the name on the back: they play for the Jason Cohen Brisket Eaters.
Or they would, if I had a fantasy football team. But I love football too much for that: the speed, the violence, the symbolic power of one’s childhood home, and the part where actual teams play actual games and win or lose on Sunday afternoons. Fantasy, on the other hand, is about when you draft and which players you “start” and convoluted scoring systems. It’s also poorly named. Fantasies are supposed to be superior to real life. You’re a lawyer, but you still wish you could be an astronaut. You’re happily married, but you dream about Ryan Gosling. So you love football, and therefore you obsess over weighted numeric formulas that are only indirectly related to the things that matter on the field? Sorry, just doesn’t do it for me.
Fantasy is football for the Twitter age, where the game is merely something that happens in between the hours you spend on the Internet reading what people are saying about it and checking the statistics of your imaginary all-star team in real time. Even the people who bother to go to the stadium spend half the game on their iPhones. Good Wi-Fi has become more important than cold beer.
The only real fantasy involved now is that instead of football fans wishing they were Roger Staubach, they’d rather be Jerry Jones (and most definitely believe they are a better GM than he is). Perhaps a better name would be “hypothetical football.” But regardless of what you call it, it may be just as popular as the game itself. Estimates suggest that as many as 27 million people play fantasy, while the NFL’s average TV audience for the regular season last year was 17.5 million, a number that still makes the NFL more popular than any other sport (or anything on television, for that matter).
Foster made the ESPN cover not just because he is a virtual star but because he has inadvertently become the poster boy for the tension between the NFL that happens on the field and the NFL that happens on your laptop. In August 2011 he suffered a minor hamstring injury. Deluged with tweets about the news, Foster realized people were more worried about how this would hurt his production for their fantasy team than his actual health or the Texans’ fortunes. “4 those sincerely concerned, I’m doing ok & plan 2 B back by opening day. 4 those worried abt your fantasy team, u ppl are sick,” Foster tweeted.
The incident resonated strongly enough that when Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson suffered yet another injury this past summer on just the second day of training camp, even people who cover the Texans became fantasy-defensive. “The Texans don’t need Andre Johnson for a full training camp. They don’t even need him for a full sixteen games during the regular season,” sniffed Chris Baldwin, of CultureMap. “Only his fantasy football owners do.”
That’s why I think you can’t be both a fantasy football fan and a football fan. It’s like betting against your own team or polyamorously rooting for the Cowboys and the Eagles at the same time. (The opposing view would be, of course, “If the Eagles are gonna beat the Cowboys 34–7, at least I can score some fantasy points off Michael Vick or LeSean McCoy.”) If there isn’t a winner and a loser, it’s not sports. If there isn’t an emotional investment in who wins or loses, it’s not sports. Being a Cowboys fan versus being a Texans fan says, at the very least, where you’re from. Being an Aggie or a Longhorn says, at the very least, where you went to school. Both those things indicate who you are, but what does being a fan of Cam Newton, Arian Foster, and Calvin Johnson all at the same time say? About the same thing as your latest win on Words With Friends does.
For a true Texans fan, the greatest moment in franchise history wasn’t about anything an individual player had done. It was the team’s win over the Cincinnati Bengals in January, marking the Texans’ first playoff victory. For a diehard fantasy player, it may have been Foster’s season-high 158 yards against Indianapolis last December, during a game that the Texans lost. The greatest fantasy running back of all time is probably LaDainian Tomlinson, as Grantland’s Bill Simmons noted after the San Diego Chargers star running back retired. LT was great. The Chargers? Not so much. “Maybe he never won himself a championship, but he took care of just about everyone else,” Simmons wrote, referring to Tomlinson’s success on countless fantasy teams.
Which makes fantasy the ultimate expression of one of the timeless contradictions of the American sports fan: the lionization of the team on the one hand and the reverence for natural talent and individual stars on the other. But that’s also the part of the story that ought to give hope to Arian Foster, and all Texans fans, for that matter. As Sports Illustrated recently showed, what wins in fantasy does not necessarily win on the field. The past three Super Bowl champions featured running backs whose carries per game were ranked twentieth, twenty-eighth, and twenty-third in the league. Offensive balance wins games. Spreading carries around among players wins games. And defense wins games. If quarterback Matt Schaub stays healthy, and Foster’s promising backup Ben Tate takes more of the workload, and Wade Phillips’s defense remains as dominating as it was last season, that’s a formula that could disappoint a lot of fantasy team owners who drafted Foster. But it should also please a lot of Texans fans—you know, the people who follow reality football.