Massarotti: Is Fantasy Football Ruining Actual Football?

By Tony Massarotti

Maybe I’m old, maybe I’m stupid, maybe I’m both. But when I asked some colleagues the other day what the biggest national sports story is at the moment, here’s what I got for a reply:

Fantasy football.

Or, more specifically, fantasy football draft prep.

Seriously though. I’m not joking. Within the last few days, ESPN conducted a fantasy football marathon, during which 28 hours of consecutive coverage were devoted to … games that aren’t really played. That all sounds kind of funny … except that it isn’t. In recent years, there have been countless stories suggesting that fantasy sports — football in particular — are a bigger business than leagues like the NFL, which likely means one of two things.

* First, fantasy football is the preferred gambling alternative for millennials, replacing the football gambling cards that many of us grew up with, or;

* There is something to be said for the notion that millennials are introverted shut-ins with no people skills who would rather watch games on a ticker tape than an actual television screen or, heaven forbid, a playing field.

And the second thing concerns me (or interests me?) far more than the first.

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Look, I admit it: I play fantasy sports, including football. But that hardly makes me a hypocrite, mostly because I understand the difference between fantasy and reality. I just wonder whether many other people have the capacity to do the same. As a talk-show host, I sometimes wonder whether fans watched the same game I did come Monday morning.

And then it occurs to me: they didn’t. They were far more interested on how many times their player got the ball, particularly in the red zone, which brings to mind a comment by former Kansas City Chiefs coach Todd Haley six years ago.

“We led the league in rushing,” Haley told Peter king of Sports Illustrated, “and all I ever hear is how we don’t run the ball the right way because Jamaal [Charles] is not getting it 25 times a game. It’s anti-TEAM. The way fans looked at what we did on offense was so fantasy-football driven. You know, the curse of the NFL — the scroll on the bottom of the screen, with all the individual stats. Fortunately for us, Jamaal’s such a good team player. He says, ‘Coach, I get it. Whatever you want me to do, I’m here.'”

As a Boston-based guy, I can give you another example of this: LeGarrette Blount, who led the NFL last season with 18 rushing touchdowns. Somehow, this has led many fans to believe that Blount is the second coming of Jim Brown, which he isn’t. Blount is a big, powerful back with value in short-yardage situations who made sense for a team like the Patriots, which need some element of power football and often are in position to kill the clock at the end of games. Know who else has led the Patriots in rushing in recent years? Jonas Gray. Stevan Ridley. BenJarvus Green-Ellis. If you see any of those guys anytime soon, I’d bet it’s on the side of a milk carton.

Which is undoubtedly why Belichick let Blount go this past offseason.

But I digress. The point is that Blount isn’t as good as his numbers, which included seven receptions last year. That’s right, seven. For the sake of perspective, consider that Patriots running back James White had 14 catches in the Super Bowl, including nine in the second half. That’s right. White had more catches in the second half of the biggest game of the year than Blount did all season, proving to be an instrumental part of the New England attack that actually won the game.

Of course, this will all be misinterpreted. I’m all for having some fun. And heaven knows I’m all for a little action on the side. But when ESPN — the self-proclaimed worldwide leader in sports coverage — spends 28 straight hours talking about games that aren’t really played, well, that’s where I get off the bus. At that stage, things have gone just a little too far. And we haven’t even delved into the exploding arena of eSports, a disturbing phenomenon in which people congregate to watch (and gamble on) other people playing video games.

Me?

Apparently, I’m a caveman.

I’d actually prefer to sit on the sofa with some buffalo wings or a bowl of chili and see if the Kansas City Chiefs can find a way to stop the Patriots on opening night. Will I have some self-indulgent interest in the game, be it through an office pool or fantasy league? Of course.

But I’ll also be well-grounded in reality, which is more than I can say for anyone who pulled an all-nighter with Matthew Berry this week.

Tony Massarotti is an avid Boston sports fan and has covered sports in Boston for more than 15 years for both the Boston Herald and Boston Globe. He now serves as a co-host on afternoon drive on 98.5 The Sports Hub in Boston. He was a two-time Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year as voted by his peers and has written four books, including “Big Papi,” the New York Times-bestselling memoirs of David Ortiz. You can follow Tony @tonymassarotti.

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