• Chelsea Byers

Play Like a Girl

Chelsea Byers, an Arizona native, lived in Philadelphia in 2010 and attended nearly every Eagles home game – that fall changed her life, vocabulary, and Sunday plans forever. She has been in fantasy football leagues for 5 seasons since that fall and has endured many ups and downs throughout this career (which is just a nice way of saying that she hasn’t won a championship but she also hasn’t ever lost so you can fuck off). As an outspoken feminist, Chelsea aims to build a fantasy squad free of women and children abusers and she wishes the NFL would do the same.

—— I am a woman, playing alongside 11 men in a fantasy football league, which in itself is a male-dominated industry. At times, I’ve felt like an alien on an unfamiliar planet, seen for all the wrong reasons. It’s immediately assumed I am here because my boyfriend is here (which he is) or that I play because my boyfriend likes me to play (which he does). My motives and reasons for being involved aren’t often seen as my own decision. And because men who like fantasy football typically appreciate women who like fantasy football, owning my involvement as something for me and not for anyone else is something that has taken work.

But that’s starting to change because the field is starting to change – and we all stand to benefit from it. The number of women playing fantasy football is on the rise, accounting for nearly 20% of league participation across multiple platforms. The NFL has experienced a growing level of female-viewership and we’ve seen their tactics shift to capture a large market share. Make no mistake: this is not a trend. This is what it looks like when women insist they have a right to take up space. In the NFL, in fantasy football, and in all corners of the world – women want their share. When it comes to fantasy football, I am thrilled to help women get theirs.

This is why I am helping The Fantasy Whisperers launch a female-only listener’s league. I think creating a space within fantasy football, specifically for women, will be an incredible opportunity to welcome first-time fantasy players into a space that is built with their experience in mind. And by using this as a listener’s league, TFW will be able to discuss league activity on the podcast, thus further normalizing women’s participation in the game.

Clearly, I do not shy away from my identity as a female in fantasy football. This is of value to me, in this highly competitive space where every tool must be used to your advantage. I have unlocked a realm of female fantasy football fans, commentators and analysts who band together to share information and support one another. And by involving women (as with anything), new ways of thinking and understanding the game emerge. I am stoked that this female-only league is happening — even if it means I will now be splitting my focus across two fantasy football leagues — and I hope you will considering signing up to join us!

Look, it goes without saying that playing fantasy football as a woman is like doing anything else as a woman in a male-dominated space – it’s not without frustrations. Generally speaking, the language around the game is what bothers me most. I believe that the language used creates the biggest barriers and most devastating impacts of the game and where we all have opportunity to make a difference.

Let it be said first: Rape jokes are not funny. They are not funny on a stage out of the mouth of a comedian, they are not funny in the context of fantasy sports. They are never, ever funny. “Trade Rape” (as one example) is a needless, harmful expression that needs to go, as is any other time these crude expressions are used. I stress this because it’s important. It’s important for women to know that there is awareness to these language issues that are hindrances to involvement and it’s important for men to cut it out, frankly.

In his book, “Things that make White People Uncomfortable”, Super Bowl champion defensive end Michael Bennett challenges the language used in fantasy football. Among plenty of other examples, the word “Owner” in terms of fantasy but even broadly across the NFL has become toxic and harmful because it dehumanizes the athletes, turning them into property. I play fantasy football because I admire the talent of the athlete playing the game. The leadership and viewpoint of the athlete, therefore, is the most important viewpoint to understand. I look to Michael Bennett’s leadership on language in football, and particularly fantasy football, because we can evolve more quickly with the words we use than anywhere else.

And along those lines because I’ve got some personal beef here, suggesting that Ezekiel Elliott, who spent the first 4 weeks of last season sitting on a couch, is “just like you and I” is demeaning and harmful. Zeke was suspended for domestic violence. Over 20 people are beaten by their intimate partner every single minute, and the NFL has a disproportionate representation of this problem. Minimizing this reality in such casual language is dangerous and destructive. We must do better. The NFL and fantasy football are not immune from the conflicts around us. These realities that get swept under the rug are part of the broader scope of barriers that keep women out.

But I am not here to write a hit list of all my grievances. (We ain’t got time for all that). Still, and even with all the issues that surround the NFL, fantasy football remains one of my greatest joys from year to year. Being in a fantasy football league has been a phenomenal, transformative experience. I want this for other women and I certainly want to break through barriers that keep women from wanting in.

As someone who loves to be a part of teams and groups – fantasy football feeds my desire to be in community. The camaraderie is unparalleled. It’s almost like a secret code – a whole world known only by a few. That bond is evident in every interaction within the league. Not more than two minutes into any conversation (save, up to 3 weeks in the post-mortem of the season) and trust it descends to rankings and draft order. Two fantasy football league members in a crowd will bore people with jargon and put folks to sleep over speculative roster moves weeks before pre-season begins. It’s awesome. I feel safe amongst my peers in fantasy football, and even in moments of behaving as the disrupter, this camaraderie for me is what has given me comfort as I continue to speak out.

If you love, or even only like football and you haven’t tried fantasy football, you really should. Your knowledge for the game is deepened and you gain a greater appreciation for the talent on the field and more respect for the players. There’s a learning curve – but nothing insurmountable. And besides, you know you can count on The Fantasy Whisperers to keep you updated with the latest in fantasy football news and analysis. What are you waiting for?