- Football Fantasies:Neoliberal Habitus, Racial Governmentality, and National Spectacle
We pin our hopes to the sporting public.—Bertolt Brecht, "Emphasis on Sport"
On September 22, 2017, at a political rally in Propst Arena in Huntsville, Alabama, President Donald J. Trump invited the assembled crowd to fantasize about American football:
Wouldn't you love to see one of these N.F.L. [National Football League] owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, "Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he's fired! He's fired!"1
Trump's pronouncement troped on his ubiquitous catchphrase from the reality television program The Apprentice: "You're Fired." Simultaneously, Trump performed his signature "You're Fired" gesture—a Brechtian "gestus" in which Trump embodies the "gist" of a business owner's sovereign authority.2 Addressing his audience as a national assembly of "people like yourselves," Trump slipped from second-person direct address to an indirect third-person declarative ("He's fired!"), interpellating his audience into a collective fantasy of wielding sovereign power over "those people taking the knee when they're playing our great national anthem."3 Thus Trump articulated a desire to wield firing authority over "those people"—predominantly black professional football players such as former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick—who knelt during the national anthem in protest of racial injustices. Moreover, Trump indulged his unfulfilled fantasy of owning and managing an NFL franchise.4 In both fantastical projections staged in the Propst Arena sporting complex, Trump performed in the subjunctive mode as a fantasy owner of an NFL team.
A 2000 fantasy football advertisement posed a rhetorical question that bears an uncanny resemblance to Trump's football fantasy: [End Page 155]
Have you ever watched a professional sporting event and thought you could do a better job than the people running the teams? Ever wondered what it would be like to be in charge of a team and have star athletes working for you? Fantasy sports allow you to do just that.5
This advertisement for fantasy sports outlined the dramaturgy of fantasy football, in which participants perform the persona of "owner" or "manager" who makes calculative decisions based on real-world statistics to produce the ideal football team. Sited on numerous competing internet platforms such as CBSSports.com, Yahoo!, NFL.com, ESPN.com, FanDuel.com, and DraftK-ings.com, fantasy football is a game in which participants assemble bespoke "fantasy teams" of professional NFL players. Each fantasy "owner" competes with others to manage the highest-scoring team—a competition determined by the actual performance of professional NFL players, whose statistical production (principally, yardage gained and points scored) accumulates to the fantasy participant who "owns" them. Throughout its dramaturgy, fantasy football transmits a neoliberal script in which individual participants inhabit the role of an owner or manager who assembles their fantasy teams by "drafting" actual NFL players. Thus fantasy football offers participants the opportunity to inhabit a neoliberal fantasy of agency, enterprise, empowerment, and market competition. However, as in Trump's football fantasy, the fantasy participant's "empowerment" attaches itself to a fantasy of expertise and managerial authority over the real, professional athletes that they "own" on their teams. Such football fantasies insistently touch on the intersections of race, capital, and politics.
Far from remaining bound to the realm of idle play, fantasy football has pronounced effects on sports fans, athletes, and broader political discourse. Soon after Trump's rally in Huntsville, NFL cornerback Richard Sherman appeared at a press conference in the aftermath of a season-ending injury to his teammate Chris Carson, where he decried how fantasy football facilitated an alienated relationship between football fans and players. Sherman asserted,
I think a lot of people, a lot of fans out there have looked at players even less like people because of fantasy football. … You go and say, "Oh man, this guy got hurt." You're not thinking, "Hey man, this guy got hurt—he's really physically hurt and he's going to take time to recover and it's probably going to affect his mental state and his physical state and now he has a long, rigorous rehab." You're thinking...