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Fantasy Football Feminism: Leveling the Playing Field of Gender in Fantasy Sports

By Abraham Salinas

Fantasy Football Analyst

@abetheape38


This past semester in my feminist theory graduate course I was assigned to read Sarah Ahmed’s book Living a Feminist Life. Unlike much of her work centered on sociopolitical issues regarding women, especially women of color, this book read as a memoir/personal testament, but was a powerful statement of what an authentic feminist life looks like. For Ahmed, “[a] feminist movement is a collective political movement . . . [which] is what does not stand still but creates and is created by movement. Feminism: the dynamism of making connections” (3). In order to make connections between one another we need to mobilize these efforts. We must be what Ahmed calls “feminist killjoys.” However, a killjoy in this context is not a bad thing. A feminist killjoy means standing against inappropriate behaviors and words, it is being the one to not laugh at sexist jokes. It means being the reason the dinner table is quiet after you have called someone out on racist, misogynist and discriminatory behavior. It means being the athlete not joining in locker room talk. Ahmed’s text heavily convicted me, and it has weighed on my heart recently that it needs to be heard in the fantasy community, where a large number of members and lovers of fantasy are women, of all different races, (dis)abilities, class statuses and gender identities.

In such turbulent times regarding the progress for marginalized groups—people of color, the queer, the transgendered, the disabled—it is important to not overlook the fact that sexist attitudes and behaviors still continue to run rampant in society, often unchecked and unnoticed. In fact, sexist and misogynist oppression by a patriarchal system has been a primordial state of normalized behavior that it has become the fabric of our society. But in a world now run on social media, how do these gendered inequalities not just pervade the virtual space but construct it? Here I am specifically interested in how patriarchal systems of oppression have infiltrated the fantasy sports sphere.

Unfortunately, I have seen this type of misogynist and sexist behavior in leagues of my own in the past. These violent discursive modes of speaking about women are the product of a gendered system that has been built by men, for men, and to benefit men. For lawyer and activist Catharine A. Mackinnon, this gender binary establishes a hierarchy that “is a social construct of male power:defined by men, forced on women, and constitutive in the meaning of gender” (emphasis mine, 414). Many incidents of past NFL players involved in domestic abuse incidents—Ray Rice, Greg Hardy, Reuben Foster, Kareem Hunt, Xavien Howard—have made me consider the ways in which the severity of these behaviors have become normalized and unregistered to men, enabled by the NFL teams who keep employing these men. Domestic abuse offender-players are let off so easily because of their commodity value for teams. Despite their off-field transgressions, they are still valued as productive bodies and because teams view them as such, we as sports fans have also become blind to how serious domestic abuse is in the league simply because they are good at football. I believe these types of sexist and misogynist behaviors have permeated into the world of fantasy sports precisely because fantasy football, like all major sports, mirrors what we see and do in society. To be completely transparent, I myself am convicted of this fact as a shareholder of Kareem Hunt and Joe Mixon in dynasty.

Sports are historically a male domain and are a prime medium that form homosocial relations between men. Fantasy football has created a space where those type of masculine relationships can cultivate and begin on a virtual plane. Social media has also played a pivotal role in the proliferation and distribution of these breeding grounds for misogyny and sexism. Because sports have been placed along the masculine axis, fantasy football has also become a space where femininity is labeled as Other, as outsiders, and as unwelcome. More insidiously, the dominant assumption that men hold some exclusive ownership of fantasy football is also distributed in these communities. In Rebecca Joyce Kissane and Sarah Winslow’s essay “You’re Underestimating Me and You Shouldn’t: Women’s Agency in Fantasy Sports,” they posit that because of "emphasis on competition, dominance, and aggression, sports are intricately connected to the social construction of masculinity in contemporary American society" (820). Because of these dominant ideologies regarding gender in culture, fantasy football has also been instituted as a masculine domain, where the capability of women to play fantasy to the level of men is questioned and patronized.

Since gender presumes a biological and intellectual superiority that favors men over women, women are positioned in a lesser-than status and lacking any substance to their fanhood, that they’re “not real fans.” Fantasy football is no different, where women continue to be treated like the minority and the league mate that can be taken advantage of. For Kissane and Winslow, “[f]antasy sports are embedded in a deeply gendered institution, sports, within which women participants historically have less power” (824). It comes as no surprise, then, that female fantasy players seem to overwhelmingly be the managers that receive unfair trade offers due to an assumed inferiority and awareness of the game. On top of being considered as inferior managers, female fantasy football players are sexualized for their participation in fantasy, becoming a fetishized object that is somehow “special enough” to enter a masculine domain and play in but not wanted to excel. Male fantasy players will say things like, “She’s good for a woman,” or, “She’s just lucky,” in order to delegitimize women who are just as superior, and in many cases more superior, in fantasy football. This is because any woman who can occupy a male-centric discourse and assert her dominance is a direct challenge to it. Hence, the male-dominated order of fantasy football and sports in general resists their presence through discursive modes of speaking and misogynist behaviors. However, the presence of women in fantasy football is able to remove male from the genealogical roots of sports and become the first place in sports where perhaps there is a true inclusion of both sexes, where each is of different gender identities, religious backgrounds, and class statuses.

Such a structural change to fantasy football gender codes benefits all of us as players, people and communities because sexist and misogynist behaviors harm all of us. Fantasy sports provides a “neutral context in which the presumed physical differences used to justify sex-segregated competition are effectively irrelevant and the distinctions between athletic participation and sports consumption are blurred” (820). Because fantasy football is a sport that is not limited by biological difference, women and men now have the capacity to participate alongside each other and tear down the gender wall that has excluded women from fandom.

In many ways, fantasy football has already begun to tear patriarchal pillars down. Kissane and Winslow state that “fantasy sports—which are played by 33.5 million people in America alone (FSTA 2013) and which, perhaps, have the potential to both affirm and challenge the gendered power dynamics of traditional sports” because fantasy football allows “women [to] be active producers in fantasy sports—playing general manager just like men, building all-male teams, managing male players, and competing within the context of sports in the institution center, an arena from which they've been largely excluded or marginalized as more passive spectators and fans” (820, 823). This is why it is important to bring this feminist lens into the fantasy sports world where 80 percent of participants are male. When we decenter masculinity in in sports, in fantasy football, and in society, we continue the work of equality for all marginalized people.

A mistake many people make is thinking that the work of feminism, which is a praxis and a cause, is finished. We are far from it, and I do not believe it is a praxis that will ever be fully completed. I am reminded of this frequently when I think of Cam Newton’s sexist comments in October 2017 when he told reporter Jourdan Rodrigue that “It’s funny to hear a female talk about routes. It’s funny.” Rodrigue was a beat reporter for the Charlotte Observer and asked Newton about Devin Funchess’s route-running skills. This incident was a hot topic for about 3 or 4 days, then quickly died when racist Tweets from Rodrigue’s Twitter page surfaced and were exposed in defense of Cam Newton. And just like that, it was forgotten. Newton issued a formal apology, but that in no way indicates how sincere it was. But this is precisely what the work of feminism seeks to remedy. Feminism exists and strives to make sure we do not forget these types of remarks and behaviors.

Fast forward to today and these issues still continues to threaten women’s livelihoods. Even at the team ownership level sexism and sexual harassment is still a major issue that continues to inscribe the male-dominated gender order. On July 16, 2020, a major news report broke out about fifteen female ex-Washington employees alleging sexual harassment while they were employed with the team. All remained anonymous, but the allegations are a serious matter that has not fallen on dead ears. The only ex-employee on record, Emily Applegate, who served as a marketing coordinator before leaving in 2015, stated that many of the harassments were requests for her to wear revealing clothing to sexualize themselves in order to close sales deals. Applegate said "[i]t was the most miserable experience of my life. And we all tolerated it, because we knew if we complained -- and they reminded us of this -- there were 1,000 people out there who would take our job in a heartbeat." Washington's longtime radio voice Larry Michael and team director of pro personnel Alex Santos were two names connected to the allegations. Michael subsequently retired and Santos was fired. Thankfully, this is one major improvement we have seen since the term “sexual harassment” was coined in the late 80s. Before, this type of misogynist office behavior was just the way it was, and even amid allegations, many sexual harassers would still be retained by their companies. Now, however, thanks to the efforts of #MeToo and #SayHerName we are seeing more and more a no-tolerance rule by employers permitting this type of behavior from male employees. Although the actions taken by organizations vary, and must be held in question, it is still a win when we see misogynist behaviors go accounted for.

In closing, if I were to be honest, I am not sure I could call myself a feminist now that I know the true meaning of a feminist life. As Ahmed states, as a male that supports equality for women and challenging rigid gender norms, I “risk becoming alienated from all of the existing structures that enable survival within an institution, let alone a progression” (36). I have a long way to go before I can claim that position, although I am firmly an ally. As I reflect on Ahmed’s Living a Feminist Life, I face the question of what feminism looks like for me because I do not believe a feminist praxis is a one-size-fits-all shirt. It is different for all of us, and there cannot and should not be a “right way” to do feminism. Sports and fantasy sports, as masculine institutions, are hostile to female presence and reluctant to giving a seat at the table to those deemed as “not real fans,” yet being a feminist killjoy in the fantasy football space is a small price to pay in order to pave the way for equality in fantasy sports. To ignore the call of promoting equality in fantasy football for both sexes would be a major disservice to creating a more unified world. As fantasy football players the onus of tearing down the gender wall lies on each and every one of us, and though society has a long way to go to in removing the constrictive gender codes that are inscribed onto all of us, it is my hope that together we can all level the playing field of gender in fantasy sports and exist in true conviviality with one another.

Abraham Salinas Across the Board Sports

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