Temple University Press Fantasy Football Returns!

This week in North Philly Notes, Temple University Press acquisitions editor Ryan Mulligan writes about this year’s Fantasy Football League, COVID, and masculinities. Let the games begin!

In March 2020, a month when certainly nothing else happened in the world, Temple University Press released Whose Game?: Gender and Power in Fantasy Sports by Rebecca Kissane and Sarah Winslow. The book looks at the online world of fantasy sports. The authors argue that while the disembodied space of online gaming might theoretically provide an opportunity for men and women to engage in sporting competition and fan culture on a level ground not found in in-person competition and fandom, in fact, male participants have a tendency to overinvest in the activity and gender it as male. The authors find that many men find in fantasy sports an opportunity to live out boyhood values that they feel increasingly out of their reach as they grow older: a proximity to highly masculinized activities and figures, the illusion of managing other people (in particular athletic bodies), a performance of coldly weighing statistical value over emotional investment, and a competitive play that invites bragging. Thus, while men and women both participate in fantasy sports and enjoy it, the authors found that many of their subjects described their leagues as masculine spaces and the men in their leagues as obsessed to the point where their league distracted and detracted from other aspects of their life.

Against these somewhat foreboding findings, Temple University Press decided last year that in order to prepare to publish this book, Press employees might become more familiar with its subject if the Press were to have its own fantasy team. Who would a university press compete against in fantasy sports? Why not other university presses? So as the 2019 NFL Season kicked off, Temple took to the Association of University Presses email listserv to recruit other university presses to compete in a University Press Fantasy League. The response was enthusiastic. A great many people wanted to show that their nerdiness extended from academic publishing into sports nerd-dom. Unfortunately, some presses had to be turned away. The league opened with fourteen teams. Given the findings of the book, it was heartening to see that four of those teams boasted at least one female manager. The league was highly competitive and all teams remained extremely engaged throughout the season, but there was no trash talk to speak of in the league’s forum. Bonnie Russell and Julie Warheit of Wayne State University Press were crowned champions.

A month after the close of the NFL season, as baseball players prepared to take the field, Whose Game? released. And suddenly, sports were put on hiatus as the world confronted COVID-19. Baseball was postponed, the Olympics were put off to another year, and basketball and hockey were interrupted. Moreover, workplaces closed, shoppers stayed home, and families went into quarantine. (Temple University Press continued to operate with all employees working from home, which continues to this day and seems likely to continue for the foreseeable future.) The virus shut down working life and recreational life all at once. Many academic books will emerge about this unusual period of American life and as a sociology editor, I am hopeful that some of them will look at how hegemonic American masculine identity complicated families’ adaptations to domestic life in this period. Denied work, and denied sports, what was left to do and still be a man? Is it any wonder fireworks sales spiked? Is it any wonder an American president driven by a tragically inflexible sense of masculinity would encourage sports leagues to restart as quickly as they could? Is it any wonder that Dr. Fauci would applaud the move as important for Americans’ sense of normalcy, purpose, and even mental health?

The pandemic has thrown a curveball to academic publishing as well, through our buyers, readers, and other stakeholders. Many of the events and mechanisms that we normally rely on to sell books are still unavailable, and while we’re doing as well as we can, control feels fleeting at best. So as sports returned and a new NFL season rolled around, I started getting emails from managers of last year’s participants in the University Press Football League. The University Press Fantasy League is back for year two of fantasy football. Three new teams would replace competitors from last season and some presses passed managing duties between colleagues. In this moment of controlling the uncontrollable, Fantasy makes a game of uncertainty and adaptation. And it feels normal and rewards a little bit of extra insight in a way that is fleeting outside of the league. The league is not exactly the same, though. Compared to last year’s 10 out of 14, this year, 12 out of 14 teams have only male managers.

Examining Gender and Power in Fantasy Sports

This week in North Philly Notes, Rebecca Joyce Kissane and Sarah Winslow, co-authors of Whose Game?, discuss fantasy sports and a COVID-19 world without sports.  

Over the last few weeks, sports fans have witnessed the cancellation and postponement of nearly all sporting events and seasons. Colleges and universities took the lead, with the Ivy League cancelling their basketball tournaments on March 10, 2020. Others (e.g., the Golden State Warriors) moved from announcing plans to play games without spectators to pausing, delaying, or cancelling specific events and/or entire seasons. The NBA suspended the 2019-2020 season on March 11th after a player tested positive for the virus, and on March 13th, the NCAA cancelled March Madness and all its basketball championship tournaments; the NHL suspended its 2019-2020 season; U.S. soccer cancelled women’s and men’s national teams matches for March and April; the PGA cancelled its March tournaments; and the MLB cancelled spring training games and delayed the start of the regular season by at least two weeks. All this left sports fans and reporters wondering how to survive a world without sports and suggesting ways to cope with this sudden loss

Whose_GameCOVID-19, however, also directly impacts a parallel sporting universe important to millions of Americans—fantasy sports. The absence of live and televised sporting events also means the absence of fantasy sports, which depend upon the performance of real athletes to determine scoring, and, thus, wins and losses. In our book, Whose Game? Gender and Power in Fantasy Sports, we focus on everyday participants’ perspectives on traditional fantasy sports—those fantasy sports in which the players manage their teams over the course of an entire season alongside people they typically know. A key motivator for playing fantasy sports is entertainment, but we find that the hobby is more than just a simple source of enjoyment for players. This is particularly so for men who numerically, ideologically, and structurally dominate the hobby and often render women outsiders. Fantasy sports offer a personalized, competitive fandom that gives participants more potent and direct feelings of control over and connection to the successes of real-life athletes than being a regular sports fan does. White, highly educated, professional men (who represent the average player) can use fantasy sports to achieve and perform an expanded yet legitimate form of masculinity we call jock statsculinity. Jock statsculinity contains elements of traditional masculinities, as men utilize fantasy sports to exert control, compete, and exercise dominance. But jock statsculinity also has a nerdy quality, insofar as competition and dominance in this space center on testing and demonstrating intellectual acumen and knowledge of statistics and sports. Additionally, jock statsculinity involves a boyish element, as men play, act juvenilely, and relive their childhood dreams of being involved in professional sports. Finally, we find that jock statsculinity is about escape—as men use the hobby to blow off steam and avoid demanding aspects of work and home.

What’s more, fantasy sports provide participants with a reason to interact with others and a valued topic of conversation. Men make greater use of and depend more fully on fantasy sports than women to “stay in touch” and bond with, typically, the men in their friend groups. Notably, this bonding frequently rests upon trash and dominance talk, which further support masculine hierarchies and, at times, create discord. Sometimes, too, men express getting overly emotional, lashing out, and finding their day or week “ruined” by fantasy sports disappointments.

Given our findings, the (hopefully temporary) loss of sports and fantasy sports in the wake of COVID-19 mean more than just a loss of entertainment and a leisure activity. For men, it means the loss of a key vehicle by which they can perform and accomplish masculinity. We see suggestions of this throughout social media as men lament having to spend “the evening with my girlfriend watching Real House Wives of New Jersey” [sic] instead of participating in the appropriately masculine world of sports. Moreover, fantasy sports’ virtual platform make it ideally suited to keeping people socially connected while maintaining physical distance. Without sporting events, this potential is unrealizable. This may be particularly challenging for men, who rely heavily on fantasy sports to bond and keep in touch with family members and friends. This suggests that they will feel the socially isolating effects of COVID-19 more so than women who are more likely to have other outlets for connection. Lastly, Whose Game? demonstrates how fantasy sports provide a key respite from the demands of work and, particularly for men, home. As work and home meld, particularly for the typical highly educated fantasy sports player likely to now be working remotely, the loss of fantasy sports will leave many scrambling for other ways to relax and connect.

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