Mr. Fantasy

This Sunday, the entire country will park itself in front of a TV, and soon after that, muscle memory will take over. We’ll switch from channel to channel, game to game, taking note of who’s breaking off big runs or dropping touch passes into double coverage. And all the while, we’ll be on our phone or computer, obsessing over decimal point differences. Fantasy football season kicks off this Sunday. 

Oh right, the NFL does too.

This year, an estimated 60 million people will play fantasy football, according to the Washington Post. To put that in perspective, 17.1 million people attended NFL games last year. 60 million is about the same population as the entire country of Italy.

To see just how much our obsession with fantasy football has changed the way we consume the NFL, look at the way the sports world reacted to the news of Andrew Luck’s retirement. Indianapolis Colts fans booed him as he ran off the field, and immediately–on Twitter, talk shows, and columns–they were eviscerated as immature, brutish fans. Sure, it’s ridiculous to boo a player for prioritizing his health over a game. But it’s a fan’s primal instinct to cheer for people who help their team and to boo those who hurt it. By choosing to leave the team moments before the start of the season, Luck was hurting the Colts, plain and simple. 

Outside of those diehards, though, it was hard for anyone else to see the situation as so black and white. Luck was simply doing what was best for himself, and we were all fine with it. It reflects a shift in attitude that’s rooted in our love affair with fantasy football. Players–not teams–are how people follow sports now. Ask five people what their favorite NBA team is, and you’re bound to hear at least one person say, “I’m a LeBron fan.”

We’ve gotten away from the days where sports were truly tribal. Now that you can watch any team play anywhere in the world, our local ties to teams are less important than ever. The players aren’t gladiators leaving it all on the field; we know the tiniest details of their personal lives (Ahem…can I interest you in learning about Tom Brady or Steph Curry?). That’s not to say that those parts of sports have gone away. They’ve just changed a little bit.

Instead, we root for these teams that we’ve invented, in leagues of families and friends, with storied (a few years old) histories. We’ve instilled tradition where it’s been lost: Where does your league draft? What does the winner get? What happens to the losers? We’ve created communities: Does your league have a threads-long email chain? A group text that never stops buzzing? Would you talk to your co-manager if it weren’t for your team? We need our quarterback to throw one more touchdown pass, and we say a little prayer.

It’s “fantasy” football, but there’s nothing fake about it. It’s the new way we watch sports.

(Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)

Idol Devotion

It’s hard being number two. For the first half of his career, Rafael Nadal was always the challenger to Roger Federer. Here was this firecracker of a tennis player from Spain, a ball of muscle and Spanish macho that couldn’t be further from Federer’s Swiss brilliance. And then, Nadal was injured, coming back to a world with Novak Djokovic winning Grand Slam after Grand Slam. Now, in the third chapter of the male tennis big three, Nadal is the last man standing at the US Open. He is chasing his 19th Grand Slam, which would put him one behind Federer, but what is most impressive is not that he’s still competitive nearly 15 years after bursting onto the scene but that he’s still winning the way he won back in the aughts. He is relentless. There has never been a tennis player more intense, who seems to throw aside the country club origins of the sport to play each match like he has something to prove. Nobody tell him, but win this US Open or not, Rafa has already proved everything. He’s one of the greats of all time.

(Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Redemption

When Mack Brown won his first game at Texas in 1998, he and his wife Sally spent the night driving around Austin drinking Dr. Pepper and eating Frito’s. They wanted to see the Texas Tower lit up orange, to take it in. By his final year there, in 2013, he had become miserable. When he would lose, he says, he would become depressed. A man who was once known as the kindest, cheeriest figure in football had a perpetual cloud following him everywhere.

When Brown was hired at North Carolina this offseason, it didn’t make much sense. Why would he want to get back into it? He had a kushy gig at ESPN, grandchildren to play with, and trout to catch at his home in the Carolina mountains. Seeing him lead his Tarheels to a season opening win over South Carolina last week, it all made more sense. In the post-game interview, he was glassy eyed. “We made so many mistakes, oh my God,” he said. And in that moment, you could see why he’s coaching again: he rediscovered the guy who was so struck by the wonder of a win, by the power of a community, by the impossibility that he could be playing a role in all of that that he would drive around all night eating Frito’s. North Carolina plays Miami this weekend at 7:00 EST. How can you not root for him?

Scripture

Here are the best reads from this week that capture all the different aspects—tribes, relics, myths—that show why sports aren’t just like a religion. They are religion.

JUKE

By Spencer Hall • Banner Society

Spencer Hall tells us the story of the Southern University Marching Band, which just might have the best name for a band we’ve ever heard: the Human Jukebox. The horns, snare drums, and flutes add a special soundtrack to any football game, but the Human Jukebox is more than just background noise at Southern. For a school perpetually battling a state legislature that slashes its funding, the band provides a constant source of pride. It’s why the Human Jukebox’s director and many more staff members are all alums. “We are the one thing Southern has never lost,” assistant director Brian K. Simmons (an alum) says. “We evolve, but we never change.”

CrossFitter Katrin Davidsdottir embodies the Icelandic warrior

By Wright Thompson • ESPN Magazine

For ESPN’s annual Body Issue, Wright Thompson profiles the fittest woman in the world, Katrin Davidsdottir who has “abdominal muscles like rumble strips on the highway.” This is the story about how Davidsdottir got those muscles, but don’t expect any CrossFit workouts. It’s about Davidsdottir’s home in Iceland, about her mom and dad, and the long history of women warriors from the country. It’s about the role sports can play in establishing a national–and personal–identity.

Colin O’Brady wants to tell you a story

By Tim Neville • Outside Magazine

Last summer, Colin O’Brady set out to become the first person to ever walk across Antarctica alone. Many had tried to do the same thing, going back to the early 20th century with Ernest Shackleton, all the way to Henry Worsley a few years ago, who died following his attempt. Every day in Antarctica, O’Brady would strap on skis and haul a 300 pound sled with all of his supplies, going 10 to 26 miles a day over 12 hours. After 53 days of doing that–in -50°F!–he woke up, 77.5 miles away from his finish line. He thought it would take him two to three days to finish. But once he started trekking, he started to feel good. Really good. He kept going. 32 hours later, O’Brady made history. Tim Neville tells us how he did it.

(Photo by Kansas City Star)

Icons

Check out this mural of Patrick Mahomes that was unveiled this week in Kansas City. Mahomes has always been larger than life, launching balls 90 yards in warm ups and putting ketchup on, literally, everything. Now, there’s a painting fit for the new king of KC.

Old Testament

23 reasons why a profile of Pete Carroll does not appear in this space

By JR Moehringer • Los Angeles Magazine

Don’t let the title fool you. This story, written while Pete Carroll was atop the college football world at USC, might include 23 reasons why JR Moehringer can’t write a profile, but along the way, we get one of the best looks into the wild mind of a football coach that has ever been written. Right from the start of the piece, Carroll tosses Moehringer a shirt to put on, explaining that where they’re going, Moehringer’s blue shirt could get him shot. “Where the hell are we going?” Moehringer asks, and you can’t help but keep reading to find out the answer to that question and another, more consequential one: when you’ve won everything, what keeps you coming back year after year?

Hymns

Fight songs are best known as a college phenomenon, but that doesn’t mean that NFL teams haven’t followed suit. In 1940, songwriter Al Hoffman, whose songs had been recorded by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, and Ella Fitzgerald, was with a friend who gave him a challenge: write a song for a football team. Hoffman was a Russian immigrant who lived in New York, and to make the challenge harder, he said he would write it about a team to which he had no connection. The Bears had won the 1940 NFL Championship, so Hoffman picked them, writing a march around the team’s slogan Bear Down. Using the pseudonym Jerry Downs, Hoffman sold the song to the team in 1941. It’s been played at every Bears home game since.

Last Words

“When you want to win a game, you have to teach. When you lose a game, you have to learn.” – Tom Landry