ESPN’s racist-looking fantasy auction drew fire so soon after Charlottesville. Is oversensitivity the problem, or should we question normalcy even more?
In the autumn, many a young (and old) man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of fantasy football picks. With our country so deeply divided, it would seem like the perfect time to find something, anything, over which to bond. What better than the deeply American game of football? If we’re going to argue amongst ourselves (another long-lived American tradition), better for it to be over points scored and player rankings than politics and privilege. A fantasy auction ought to be just the thing to take the national mind off the national troubles, right?
Last Monday, as part of their fantasy football marathon, ESPN ran a skit that portrayed a live action fantasy auction. A fast-talking white auctioneer offered up football players such as Odell Beckham Jr., Tom Brady, and Rob Gronkowski. Acting as bidders were a notably non-diverse group of mostly white men. A clip showing a cardboard cutout of Beckham’s face on a stick being sold to a grinning white winner sparked a Twitter storm against ESPN. The network eventually apologized about the “bad optics.”
Coming as it did on the heels of a massive, violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, VA, ESPN’s fantasy auction segment was, at best, gobstoppingly poorly timed. One has to wonder at the astoundingly poor media savviness of a broadcaster that claims to be “the worldwide leader in sports.”
But maybe that’s the problem. There’s the wide world of sports, and the all-too-real world in places like Charlottesville and Ferguson. There are as many perspectives as there are people, and while we often self-select to intersect with those who align most naturally with us, that means that the world of geek-level sports fans and that of Black Lives Matter seem to intersect most explosively in times of controversy. (See also: Colin Kaepernick.)
Virtual sports teams have been around since at least 1980, when Daniel Okrent invented the rules for a silly game of make-believe baseball at La Rotisserie Francaise. Rotisserie league baseball, as it came to be known, branched out into other sports in the mid-1990s, and later exploded on the internet. Now it’s a huge industry, and any armchair sports enthusiast can play. The fantasy auction is a time-honored way for fans to build their mock teams. For the vast majority of those who run fantasy teams, what likely matters most is a player’s stats, not his skin color. They’re not looking to be racist, they’re playing for funsies.
From another perspective, this is anything but fun. We’re living in “interesting times.” The heightened atmosphere of racial tension is impossible to ignore for those whose lives and safety are at stake. White nationalists clearly feel empowered to make gestures and mouth-noises that were previously taboo, but perhaps the recent gag of our national super-ego (and amplification of the id) also inspired others to speak up about race in ways they haven’t before. For example, why is it that so many football players happen to be black, while so many team owners are white? Why do we buy and sell people for entertainment?
Although a fantasy auction looks and feels completely normal to fans who play the game, slave auctions were also once completely normal. On one hand, times have changed. There’s a yawning chasm between auctioning actual slaves and the millions of dollars we pay directly to famous athletes. On the other hand, we still live in a system where workers of all colors are considered “free to choose” work at humiliating, meaningless, dangerous, and/or poorly-paid jobs to live, or risk being unable to pay the bills, while corporate owners sell the products of their labor for profit. It’s so normal that we often fail to question it, not unlike a fantasy auction, or the way that some people are able to sail through events that could be fatal for others with darker skin.
Perhaps it’s not that we’ve come so far from slavery times that people can stop complaining now. Perhaps it’s that we haven’t actually come as far as we’d like to think – and we merely think we have.