Let's get one thing out of the way right off the top: I am a complete and total hypocrite.
I just want to own that. I have no leg to stand on here. So please keep that in mind as we go back to last May. The NFL draft had recently been completed and we were doing a prime-time "rankings reveal" special of "Fantasy Football Now." And at the top of the show, Sara Walsh turned to me and asked, very simply, who I had at No. 1 overall. Most people, including the official ESPN ranks, had Jamaal Charles. You could also make a strong case for LeSean McCoy. But I said, while I liked both players quite a bit, my No. 1 player was Adrian Peterson.
Seems like a decade ago.
After my Ray Rice column last week, I wanted to do a fun column this week, something light and easy. Because ultimately, that's what fantasy football is. Fun. We do it to escape, to bond, to enjoy professional football even more, and I try to celebrate that in different ways, week after week. That was on the agenda this week, but that's clearly out the window now. And I wonder if the idea of fantasy football being fun is as well.
There are a lot of fundamental differences between real football and fantasy, but one of them is that in fantasy, you get to choose the guys on your team. Not the general manager of your favorite NFL team, not the star-obsessed billionaire owner, not the franchise quarterback. You. That focus on the individual, the name on the back of the jersey rather than the color of it, is the core difference between fantasy and real football.
These are my guys, you think. Those guys are the ones you root for when you watch games that don't involve your regular team allegiances. For me, I not only root for the players on my fantasy teams, I root for my picks. I have eight teams this year, and I own Cordarrelle Patterson in four of them. But as someone whom I hyped a lot in the preseason, I want Patterson to crush, even if it means he is playing against my team in four leagues.
I root hard for him and I will tell you that I've spent absolutely no time thinking about what kind of person he is. He might be a great guy. He might be a jerk. I don't know, and this preseason, I didn't care. I just knew he was big, insanely fast and had a new offensive coordinator who uses deep vertical passing as a core offensive tenet.
It's not just that ignorance is bliss. I was disgusted by Michael Vick's involvement in dogfighting. Ben Roethlisberger wasn't on my short list to invite to a party. Wasn't impressed by Brett Favre's alleged cell phone etiquette.
Drafted them all.
I told you. Complete hypocrite. In my years of playing fantasy football, I've stuck to one core belief. To have fun. You know what's fun? Winning. So I tend to look at players as statistical pieces of meat.
But so, too, does Fantasy Football Nation. People drafted Ray Rice this year, Greg Hardy's Panthers defense, and I got news for you: If Aaron Hernandez were released from custody tomorrow and the Patriots re-signed him, he'd be the hottest pickup of the week.
At least, he'd have to be if you wanted to win. And that's what I'm struggling with now. Because we all want to win, but is it possible to do that while also having a conscience? Does investing in a player's on-the-field potential mean that I'm also invested in his off-the-field conduct? Can I really root for the stats but not the person? I used to ... but now?
With Tuesday's news that Peterson has been placed on the commissioner's exempt list preceding most fantasy leagues' waiver wire claim deadline, I tweeted this.
Waivers ran last night in most lgs. Did you drop Adrian Peterson? Why or why not? Might use your answer in a column.
- Matthew Berry (@MatthewBerryTMR) September 17, 2014
Most didn't. And in fact, the conversation wasn't about Peterson's actions, but rather the potential fantasy value he represents to his owners.
"Not gonna drop him until I know for sure that he's done for the season. Too much upside. -- @BrandonButch
"I just benched him because I think the legal process could wrap up quicker than people think. Then Vikes will reinstate him." -- @OPannouncer
Others stood by him, either based on American ideals ...
"Nope, innocent until proven guilty. Benched, but not dropping." -- @ttolma
Or because they believe in him ...
"I love AP. He is my favorite player despite his transgressions and mistakes. No one is allowed to make mistakes in society?" -- @2tallSmalls
Some think this is just all one big silly misunderstanding ...
"I'm holding him for a few weeks at minimum. The NFL office is a disaster right now. Let things stabilize before I drop him." -- @SixSixMusic
While others mentioned fear of what he could do on another team ...
"Kept him b/c he may come back + the thought of my enemies, aka the death merchants of my league, picking him up enrages me." -- @bearfrazer
"Fantasy is Fantasy. If I drop him for morality reasons, he is facing me in Week 12." -- DerekDust23
Some acknowledged that he doesn't sit right for them morally, but it's not a concern in fantasy ...
"I kept him. Still has upside, I don't play for moral reasons. I can disagree with (the allegations) and still trot him out there." -- @whitey_arw
"As horrible a person he may be, he can win a league for a team. Holding him till a definitive decision is made." --@ctubito1
But for a few brave souls, there was no gray area at all ...
"I did drop him. Even if he comes back, I don't want him to be the reason I win and I don't want to have to root for him." -- @jbteller
"Here's the email I sent the owners in my league that night.
"I just dropped Adrian Peterson and changed my team name. ... Don't want him on my team. I'll probably lose ... but I stand by my decision. Feel free to add him." -- Peter Buchanan @Buc07
With the exception of the player who just blindly supports Peterson, I actually understand all of the responses. I've been there. We play fantasy to win fake football games, not assemble a group of guys you want to bring home to Mom.
A common question I get every preseason is some version of this: "I have pick No. 3 but I really want Calvin Johnson this year. Is that too early?" And my answer is always something like this: "It's not what I would do, I have Calvin at No. 8 this year. But hey, it's your team. Calvin is a stud and he's not coming back to you in the second round. Fantasy is supposed to be fun. If you want to root for Calvin on your team this year, go for it."
Which brings me back to Adrian Peterson.
I own him in one league. The league I do with my family. The kids wanted their own teams this year, so I co-own a team with my wife. She's relatively new to fantasy (and frankly, sports), so I'm letting her steer the ship and she's learning as she goes. The part she has down pat is that we do this for enjoyment and to do something as a family.
I want to root for this team. I want us to root for our players. I don't want the mother of my children rooting for someone who hit his. So once we could drop players on Wednesday (the league has an atypical waiver system), it was an easy decision for us.
Even if Peterson is back playing in the NFL, this season or some other, he won't be on our team. I don't know if it's possible to win at fantasy and still have a conscience, but I'm looking forward to finding out.
It's not a popular position. There are many millions of people that play fantasy football on ESPN.com. And as of this writing, he's been dropped in just over 1 percent of leagues. He doesn't even show up in the top 25 most-dropped running backs. And this is a player who is barred from the team with no definite timetable for his return.
When I put my question out on Twitter, one of the responses I got was from Rick Casucci. He's in the Blitz Fantasy Football Leagues from Pittsfield, Massachusetts, a 14-team PPR auction league that's been running for eight years now under commissioner Jeff Beaulieu. Jeff recently sent this note to his league:
Peterson and Rice removed from our player pool (Lifetime ban)
League Manager's Note
In light of recent events regarding abuse involving Peterson and Rice, both players are now banned from the Blitz FF League for life. I cannot physically remove them from the player pool, but please do not attempt to acquire either of these players going forward. They will not be eligible for any draft in any future year, as well. I commend all league owners, in advance, for supporting this move. Thanks!
Good for you, Jeff. It's a small gesture around a very serious issue, but small gestures are important, too. I would love it if every fantasy league did this. The fantasy football playing audience is a large and important one to the NFL. More than you know. And if every league did this, it sends a message. And if enough messages get sent, eventually things change.
Bit by bit, day by day.
And that includes me.