The New Yorker isn't exactly the traditional source for football writing, and Adam Gopnik is known more for writing about Paris than pigskins. Yet the two teamed up this past week for an article on football called "The Unbeautiful Game."
The article caused plenty of comment in the online world, mostly due to a lack of focus. One part of the story, though, deserves some fresh attention here. Gopnik takes a valid point about the game and draws, in my opinion, a wrong conclusion.
The starting point is that pro football players have become increasingly disconnected with their fans. That's valid. Part of the story is the money involved these days, as the average fan can't relate to some of the salaries paid out. Part of the problem is the mere size of the athletes; we just don't encounter people that big on a regular basis. And I would guess some members of the white audience have cultural problems with a player base that has become largely African-American. (You probably could make the same points about the NBA, but that's another essay.)
Gopnik says fans have gotten around this in two ways. For teens, video games like Madden '07 have become a way to identify with players. The author says the kids are fans of pixels instead of players. Fair enough. Gopnik then says adult fans have become obsessed with statistical analysis of the game. The author argues that several books have come out in recent years about football stats, and that all of them are rather complicated and not particularly predictive and therefore not overly useful.
That's not the correct conclusion. I think fantasy football is that link that some -- not all, but some -- use to escape that disconnect from the current NFL. Don't want to listen to Terrell Owens yap about something? He's reduced to mere numbers and production in fantasy sports. Contracts and trade requests and free agents bore you? That's not a problem in fantasy leagues.
Numbers-oriented football books are merely an effort to capitalize on baseball's success in that area, as we search for a "Moneyball-like" revolution in football that isn't likely to come.
Personally, I've never felt the need to participate in fantasy sports. Part of sports' appeal to me is inclusiveness -- the fact that I can strike up a conversation about the Red Sox, Bills, or some other team with another fan and instantly have a common language. That doesn't work in fantasy sports, which limits its universe to participants -- in other words, about 11 other people -- who have the slightest idea what you are talking about. In other words, everyone connected with sports has had the experience of hearing about someone else's fantasy team ... and yawned. I'm not anxious to inflict that on others.
I'm not arguing here that fantasy sports are bad; I'm for anything that makes people happy. I'm saying that they aren't the traditional way of following the sport, and that the changing nature of, in this case, football is a big part of the reason behind their growth in popularity.