I’m not here to put a new spin on some blasé gendered commentary re: sports and women. I’m going to assume we’re all enough in 2017 for me to skip the intro about how many women actually love football and it’s not just a “man thing” and whatnot (even though the NFL doesn’t really serve our best interests). Ick. None of that, please. I’m here to talk about the gender politics of fantasy football! Now, THAT’S intriguing.
I wasn’t always a football enthusiast, and I definitely spent most of my life actively avoiding sports-based competitions. This has nothing to do with my gender and absolutely everything to do with the utter lack of athletic ability and coordination I’ve struggled with my entire life. In third grade, I joined the softball team, and I learned quickly that my strong suit was not chasing, catching, or running to/away from anything. My mom and dad, unlike the stereotypical parents in movies that support their nonathletic children at soccer games no matter what, couldn’t even pretend that I had potential. They sat me down at the kitchen table, in what they believed was an act of compassion, and told nine-year-old me in no uncertain terms that I blew at sports and probably should move on and read a book, or something. That was about the point I became totally disengaged from anything athletic.
Cue college football game, ten years later, where I discovered the infinite joys of tailgating and inhaling as many hot dogs as humanly possible before screaming my face off in the student section. Suddenly, football was A THING. I bought season tickets every subsequent year, learned about turnovers and interceptions and extra points, basked in the glory of our wins and lamented our losses. I came home for Thanksgiving and could actually hold a conversation with my father about the Pittsburgh Steelers, his favorite team, and whether Ben Roethlisberger was still a powerhouse or just an injury-prone, washed-up, has-been. He smirked at me over his mashed potatoes, half-impressed, half-mocking, but he engaged with me, and that was something.
Fast-forward to the present. I’m twenty-six and the lone vagina in my twelve-person fantasy football league. I was not invited into this league. Last year, upon learning my fiancé was joining three (!!!) different leagues, I decided to get in on the action. After texting the commissioner, a mutual friend, and (nicely) insisting I get added to the lineup, I got denied. He made some bullshit excuse about “not having enough open spaces” when I knew for a fact he was still scouting out competitors. After a week, and some degree of desperation on his part, he rescinded his original judgment and texted to offer me a spot. With the stoic grace of a Supreme Court justice, I paid my $50 and did a little victory dance in my kitchen.
I took second place in that league last year. Josh played football in college, and the other guys were die-hard NFL fans for their entire lives. Most of the guys in this league are people I’ve met once or twice, and I know for a fact they initially thought I joined the league just because Josh did it. I watched as they proposed unfair trades, assuming I’d take the bait. They ignored my efforts at playful smack talk and refused to reply back. I watched them get lazy with lineups, out of arrogance, and keep BYE-week players actively rostered while STILL expecting to beat me. They didn’t. I don’t think they were going out of their way to be mean as much as they considered me an afterthought. What began as a fun diversion for me morphed into something bigger than itself – an overpowering desire to crush the entire competition and earn the respect of people who underestimated the lengths I would go to prove myself. If my Italian heritage gave me anything, it’s fiery stubbornness.
I poured my energy into researching players, projections, and weekly stats. I studied the waivers and took risks on sleepers. I used Antonio Brown as a bargaining chip for Travis Kelce and Brandin Cooks, cut my losses on Kelvin Benjamin, and cursed Isaiah Crowell’s mediocrity every week. I favored Rodgers over Brady, purely on principle, and I’ll defend that choice to my death.
When the playoffs finally came around, and my first place ranking landed me the BYE week, I realized that whatever happened, I did what I set out to do. Acknowledgement or not, respect or not, I made it. In the end, I lost by three points in the championship as my benched players racked up 50+ points, but that’s life, and that’s football. And upon completion of the season, when I collected my $150 winnings, quietly proud, the commissioner called me and said, “All right, Jenny, I can’t wait to see what you do next year.” For those of you who are unfamiliar with the show “The League,” Jenny is the badass solo woman in the guys’ league who runs circles around her husband. Coincidentally, Josh came in dead last. That moment, that phone call, stupid as it sounds, meant everything to me.
I suppose some of this goes back to the softball thing, but most of it is just the desire to not be discounted purely because I’m a woman. No one makes the assumption that a man’s going to suck at fantasy football based on his gender. No one underestimates or questions a man’s draft picks before even seeing them. Men are not denied entry from other men’s leagues because they’re perceived as ignorant with no basis for the assumption.
Josh is loudly watching the Vikings-Bears game in the living room. His win rides on Latavius Murray. I’m curled up in our bed with the +35 win I secured yesterday. Who knows what will happen this season, but I’m grateful to be here, writing this post, with the respect I’ve worked so hard to earn.