For players in today's NFL, fantasy is the new reality

A fantasy hero in Week 15, Justin Tucker disappointed owners in Week 16, hitting just one extra point.
Duane Burleson/AP

After his game-winning 61-yard field goal on Monday Night Football last week, Baltimore Ravens kicker Justin Tucker didn't exactly spew the usual clichés of giving it his all and taking it one game at a time.

Instead, he gave a shout out to the people who live and die with his achievements and failures: his fantasy owners.

"My fantasy team is benefiting from it as well so I'm happy about that," Tucker, who had six field goals that night, including the 61-yarder, told ESPN's Lisa Salters. "Fantasy owners around the world, I hope you guys appreciate the points as well."

With fantasy league championships on the line, Tucker may very well have been the difference between a title berth and the start of an early offseason. (Full disclosure: This reporter is a fantasy player.)

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Though it was said in jest, Tucker's acknowledgment of the hobby indicates how popular it is. Fans invest their time, money and emotion in fantasy -- sometimes to a fault. The fact isn't lost on players.

"[Fantasy] is fun for people to play," said New York Jets (7-8) wide receiver Greg Salas after the Jets' 24-13 win over the Cleveland Browns (4-11) on Sunday. "I think some people take it seriously and go a little too far with all the Twitter stuff. As long as everybody can keep it within reasonable means, I think it's a great way for everyone to get involved and learn about players and have something to root for during the game."

This season has shown that when put in the wrong hands, fantasy football can produce some disturbing moments. The most troubling fantasy-related incident happened in October, when a Twitter user threatened to kill New York Giants running back Brandon Jacobs if he didn't have a productive game. Jacobs re-tweeted the threat, and did not hold back his criticism of fantasy.

"Players don't want to hear anything about fantasy football," Jacobs said. "We're not living fantasy football."

Other players have also voiced their displeasure about fantasy this year as well.

In the Jets locker room, Salas was not the only player to mention the link between fantasy football and social media. Tight end Zach Sudfeld also brought it up, and when asked whether they were aware of others getting such threats -- which tight end Kellen Winslow called "foolishness" -- players talked about them as just a part of life.

"Especially with social media and Twitter and stuff like that, there's such a connection, so if you're not performing, you're getting people just ripping into you," Sudfeld said.

His teammates were knowledgeable about fantasy, but tight end Jeff Cumberland claimed not to know anything about it.

"I don't know what you do, if you draft, if you do it for money," he said.

Maybe that blissful ignorance is the best way to deal with the most disturbing byproduct of fantasy football: the dehumanization of athletes it helps to perpetuate. When a star player gets hurt, we don't have to wait long at all to learn the "fantasy impact" of that injury. Fans shouldn't need to send players get well soon cards, but if fantasy football is the first thing that crosses our minds when a player suffers an injury, it might be time to think about how seriously we take it.

When Aaron Rodgers went down with the collarbone injury that has kept him out for seven weeks now, there surely were thousands of fantasy players who mourned their loss along with the Packers faithful. Yet another way fantasy has made an impact on football: it makes us root for players as well as teams. A Bengals fan who starts A.J. Green may not be too thrilled when Andy Dalton finds Mohamed Sanu in the end zone for a touchdown -- even though his team scored, his player didn't.

"You're not rooting for a team, you're rooting for an individual on anybody's team," Salas said. "It kind of takes away from people really building that team bond."

There certainly is a bond between fantasy football and the men whose yards and touchdowns we celebrate, and that will never change. The problem is when fans make too much of it. There aren't enough of these crazed fans to endanger the game's existence, but it might be time to explore the relationship between fantasy football and the real thing.

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