A Former Player's Take on Fantasy Football in the NFL Locker Room

Ryan RiddleCorrespondent IJune 13, 2013

November 18, 2012; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice (27) wears a terrible towel on his head as he returns to the locker room after the Baltimore Ravens defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field. The Pittsburgh Steelers won 13-10. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Whether you play fantasy football or not, this $1 billion-a-year pastime continues to grow.

As it flourishes, its impact on the NFL and its players becomes increasingly more profound.

As a former NFL athlete and burgeoning fantasy football addict, I’d like to take you inside the culture of a typical NFL locker room as it relates to the growing hobby that has captivated fans across the nation, bridging the divide between team loyalty and league-wide interest.

Life during an NFL season can be a hectic time for dedicated football fans trying to juggle their careers, families and fantasy teams each and every week. Finding adequate time to tailor the rosters and starting lineups of your numerous fantasy teams can easily consume several hours a day.

Needless to say, this hobby has been the bane of marriages around the country. Even employers are suffering as more and more time on the clock is spent managing a fictitious world. According to estimates by Challenger, Gray & Christmas in a report via FoxBusiness.com, “The nation’s more than 22 million employed fantasy football participants may be costing employers up to $6.5 billion this year.”

Clearly this hobby can become quite time consuming.

So, for those of you wondering whether or not many NFL players play fantasy football, imagine what it must be like for an NFL player to find the time outside of a week dedicated entirely to football from sunrise to sunset.

NFL players are intrinsically competitive. In order to compete and win in a decent fantasy league, you have to put a significant amount of TLC into your teams each and every week—evidenced earlier by the amount of money it cost employers last year.

The limited leisure time afforded to an active player is usually dedicated to the preparation needed to get an edge on an upcoming opponent, or that player is trying to soak up as much family time as possible, which can be tough during the season. 

Basically, one of the last things a guy in the NFL wants to do with his rare moments of football-free time is study more NFL-related content despite such efforts having no implications on the actual game he dedicated endless hours preparing for.

This is not to say NFL players don’t play fantasy football, some most certainly do, including guys like Maurice Jones-Drew, DeAngelo Williams and Matt Forte, and the numbers are likely growing. However, most players realistically just don’t have the time or the interest to dedicate valuable brain power to the hobby unless it directly relates to their career in some way—or offers them an escape from the game altogether.

“Football overload” is a common ailment in the NFL. As the season wears on, guys begin to break down and suffer mental fatigue from the grueling focus on their craft. So any hobbies that add more football to a player’s day must be chosen wisely. Considering professional athletes love their video games, the No. 1 football-related pastime in my experience has to be Madden by EA Sports.

During my time with the Raiders and Jets, I cannot recall a single significant conversation relating to fantasy football amongst players in the locker room. Back in 2005 and 2006, fantasy football was nowhere near what it has grown into today, but it was popular nonetheless.

Yet discussions regarding fantasy football in any form were virtually non-existent—but why?

It might surprise you to hear that NFL locker room chatter rarely centers on league news, stats or any information that fans themselves may be chatting about at the office water cooler. Typical football fans at work may love gathering around their cubicles to debate about last week’s action or which players are dominating, but when you actually play in the NFL, building that rapport with coworkers is likely to be about all things non-football related.

Just as the office employee seeks to escape his duties with talk of the outside world, so too does a professional football player. This means most casual conversations amongst teammates are far removed from the endless grind of the NFL.

However, fantasy football has still managed to impact NFL players tremendously, thanks in large part to the emergence of social media such as Twitter. Now, more than ever, fans and athletes are within arm’s length of each other. Direct access to your favorite or least-favorite athletes is now just a button push away. As a result, players can finally grasp the competitive nature of this popular hobby like never before as fans berate, praise, support, congratulate and threaten with reckless abandon.

These platforms have completely revolutionized the way athletes and fans interact. It’s hard for a player these days to ignore the fantasy implications from a poor statistical game. Before a player can even get on the plane home, his Twitter app on the phone becomes flooded with interactions ranging anywhere from injury inquiries to threats of being benched by overzealous league owners.

Texans RB Arian Foster expressed his frustration about fantasy football fanatics in this tweet:

WR Greg Jennings also spoke candidly about fantasy football while at SXSW Interactive in an article by Jeff Bercovici via Forbes.com:

When a player says it doesn’t really bother them, they’re lying, that’s the politically correct answer. As players, it puts pressure on us to make sure we’re the liked player in that category. It plays with your mind.

It’s a unique deal where we mean more to a fan than we ever have. I remember getting hurt and I’m leaving the stadium, and first thing a guy says to me is, ‘Jennings, should I drop you from fantasy?’ And you sit back like, ugh, really?

For some, the concern here is that fantasy football has dehumanized players into statistical robots designed for the sole purpose of accumulating points for your customized team.   

Like it or not, fantasy football is a growing entity in locker rooms around the league, but will forever have a limited role in a real NFL environment. 

With that said, it isn’t going anywhere. In fact, all indications suggest it’s only going to get bigger. And although it may annoy some NFL players from time to time, in the end the increased fan interest only contributes to the success of the league, as well as the fattening of their already bulging billfolds.