ESPN's Auction Puts The Racial Dynamics Of Fantasy Sports On Full Display

ESPN is under fire for airing a fantasy football "auction" that evokes images of slavery. But it also reveals an uncomfortable truth.

ESPN launched a 28-hour fantasy football marathon Monday night, and it didn’t take long for some viewers to notice a particularly offensive segment that looked a lot like a modern-day slave auction.

“Next on the auction block,” auctioneer Alan Wheeler says as the segment starts, “we have Odell Beckham Jr.”

Wheeler then launches into a fast-paced bidding process that ultimately “sells” the New York Giants wide receiver, who is black, for $34 to a beaming white man he dubs “Shiny Top.”

ESPN also “auctioned” New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who is white ― but the segment featuring Beckham has drawn criticism for obvious reasons. A white auctioneer selling off mostly black players (another segment featured black Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell) to what appears to be an almost entirely white audience clearly evokes the slave auctions of the past.

That’s bad enough on its own. But there’s also a major timing problem: The segment ran a couple days after white supremacist-led violence erupted in Charlottesville, Virginia, amid efforts to remove Confederate statues (including some that sit on actual slave auction sites). Meanwhile, NFL players continue to protest the national anthem to draw attention to racism in America.

But while ESPN’s segment is clearly guilty of bad imagery and bad timing, it is also illuminating: When you can actually see a visual representation of a fantasy draft, it starts to look pretty racist pretty fast. 

Consider this: Roughly 70 percent of NFL players are black men.

The average fantasy sports player in the United States and Canada, however, is a white man in his mid-30s who has a college degree and is fairly well-off, according to 2014 numbers from the Fantasy Sports Trade Association

The uncomfortable truth is that most fantasy football drafts probably look almost exactly like ESPN's.

Ninety percent of fantasy sports players, in fact, are white, and 80 percent are men, the association reports. Nearly 80 percent are college graduates, and their average annual income is $92,000. Of the estimated 42 million people who played fantasy sports in 2014, 70 percent said their preferred game was football, according to the association’s numbers.

Daily fantasy sports participants, meanwhile, were 98 percent male and 92 percent white in 2015, according to one survey

The uncomfortable truth, then, is that most fantasy football drafts ― whether auction or traditional-style ― probably look almost exactly like ESPN’s. A bunch of white dudes sit around, bidding on players who are, most likely, black people, until one proud “owner” can celebrate his acquisition.

When we’re sitting in front of our computer screens or hanging out with buddies drinking beer for a live draft, the troubling racial undertones aren’t as obvious as they are on television.

But they probably should be.

Fantasy sports, after all, turn fans into de facto owners. So maybe it shouldn’t come as a shock that they reflect the power structures of major sports leagues as a whole. None of the NFL’s 31 majority owners, for instance, is black, and only Jacksonville’s Shahid Khan, who is Pakistani, is a racial minority.

And just as those actual owners buy, sell, trade and cut players as they see fit ― discarding them as soon as they’re too injured or not good enough to perform ― so too do fantasy owners.

That setup has skewed the way fans view the labor of the athletes they “own,” allowing them to commoditize and dehumanize football players ― especially when it comes to the injuries they inevitably suffer during a season ― just as actual franchise owners already do. That the majority of the fantasy owners are white, and the majority of players are black, makes this even more problematic.

ESPN’s segment was tone-deaf, especially given the events of this past weekend, and a producer or executive at the company should have stepped in or reconsidered whether it was appropriate to air.

But it wasn’t an inaccurate portrayal of what fantasy football actually looks like in practice. That’s not simply an issue of timing or a producer’s poor judgment. It’s an issue with fantasy sports. 

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