[Content warning: sexual assault, domestic violence, sexual harassment]
A few weeks ago, at 7:28 p.m., I sat at my dining room table, a stack of papers to my right and a Pabst Blue Ribbon to my left. My computer was open to the Yahoo Sports Fantasy Portal, a faded blue “join now” button superimposed over a high resolution photo of a football stadium. It was draft day — fantasy draft, that is.
I had printed out a list of the projected top 200 players for the season — name, team, position, bye week, strength of schedule. Green highlighter dots marked players I would prioritize with late picks (running back Devin Singletary, tight end Austin Hooper), and red dots players I thought were likely to go too early. Horizontal lines divided the list into groups of ten, to mark the rounds of my upcoming draft. Next to a few players — among them Jameis Winston and Ben Roethlisberger — I had written in the margins a small X: players who had been credibly accused or convicted of sexual assault.
The first fantasy league ever, called the Rotisserie Baseball league, was designed by a group of friends to give regular fans (read: people without the financial means to actually buy a franchise) the opportunity to experience life as a sports team owner. Fantasy sports put fans in the driver’s seat, providing a behind-the-scenes look at the decisions owners, managers, and coaches make every day.
And boy, did week one of the NFL season not make those decisions easy. Of course, there were the usual last minute player calls that made a difference — starting Dak Prescott over Baker Mayfield, choosing to bench T.Y. Hilton, waiving a kicker who pulled a groin. But many of the real questions happened off the field. On Saturday, just two days before their season opener on Monday Night Football, the Oakland Raiders released wide receiver Antonio Brown, following an altercation with Raiders general manager Mike Maycock. Brown had been traded to the Raiders from the Pittsburgh Steelers just five months before. He had not played a single snap in black and white.
For fantasy owners, the scramble was on. Teams proposed trades, hoping to capitalize on a theoretical panic over Brown’s departure and banking on him being picked up by another team (in our league, this bait was not taken). But the scandals surrounding Brown was only beginning. On Monday, Brown signed with the New England Patriots. The next day, Brown’s former trainer, Britney Taylor, filed a lawsuit in federal court in Florida, alleging that Brown had made unwanted sexual advances (including masturbating behind her) while she was working on his ankle rehabilitation. According to Taylor’s lawsuit, ten months later, he violently raped her. A few days later, another woman came forward anonymously, accusing Brown of inappropriate sexual advances and conduct while she was being commissioned to paint a mural for his house. Brown, for the record, denies both allegations. A Sports Illustrated report also detailed multiple domestic dispute calls following Brown’s conduct with several women, as well as an incident in which Brown threw furniture out a window, nearly striking and killing a two-year-old child.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has the power to sideline players in “highly unusual situations” by placing them on the commissioner’s exempt list (perhaps most famously in 2014, when Adrian Peterson was placed on the list after it was discovered that he had whipped his son), a step he chose not to take with Antonio Brown prior to the Patriots Week Two game against the Miami Dolphins. Patriots coach Bill Belichick also elected to start Brown in Sunday’s game, refusing to comment on the allegations. While Brown prepared for his first game in blue and red, Taylor spent upwards of ten hours being interviewed by league officials as part of the investigation into Brown’s conduct.
And that settled the matter. Right?
As fantasy owners, however, the decisions were yet to be made. Brown was not an obvious bench — he was not injured, he was likely to play. There was some amount of risk, certainly, in how much playing time he would get, and whether he would have been able to integrate himself into the offense after less than a week of practices (Brown silenced these critiques on the Pats first drive, with three receptions on three targets from quarterback Tom Brady). But beyond the tactical, there was another question: was it ethical to start Antonio Brown, given the allegations against him?
There are no moral victories in fantasy football. And the results — and I cannot stress this enough — literally do not matter. Antonio Brown does not get monetary compensation for being in starting fantasy lineups. It doesn’t make him any more likely to make the Pro Bowl, or have his contract renewed, or be Brady’s target in next Sunday’s game. And yet fantasy football provides us with a microcosmic opportunity to make our own moral choices, to face the decisions made by coaches, owners, and commissioners, and see where our values lie.
My opponent in last week’s game chose to start Antonio Brown. It made a difference. It made a difference to me as a football fan, a woman, a survivor. I opened the Yahoo Sports app and saw him accumulating points off Brown, and it made a difference that he had the privilege to excuse Brown’s conduct for the sake of a victory. While Britney Taylor, while the anonymous woman who accused Brown days later, while sexual assault survivors everywhere, every day, are forced to live with their trauma, their downgraded self worth, he was allowed to move on, to score points, to forget.
When we ignore the actions of athletes to score points, fantasy or otherwise, we make a difference to football fans everywhere, particularly female fans. By starting Brown, the Patriots made a statement: that winning was more important than supporting women, supporting survivors, supporting victims of domestic violence and abuse. As fantasy owners, we can’t change Goodell’s or Belichick’s decisions. But we can make our own. We can choose ethics, perhaps at the expense of victory We can choose supporting and believing women over scoring an extra point. We can choose to do the right thing.