Well, both. Here's the scholarly literature on fantasy-football dude-bonding.
TO THE NAKED EYE, IT MAY APPEAR THAT: FX's comedy gem The League, whose fourth season premieres Thursday night, is about five guys and a girl who talk trash and compete in a fantasy football league.
BUT ACCORDING TO EXPERTS WHO THOUGHT REALLY HARD ABOUT THIS: The League is actually about five guys who reinforce hegemonic masculinity (y'know, the culturally normative ideal of male behavior) by talking trash and competing in a fantasy football league—and a girl who's expertly undermining it.
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It's estimated that some 27 million people play fantasy football in the United States, and in 2005, Donald P. Levy of the University of Connecticut found that 97.9 percent of fantasy sports enthusiasts were men. If there's any way to show statistically that a phenomenon is a so-called "guy thing," this is probably what it looks like. (Studies show that it's largely a white-guy, educated-guy, pretty-well-off-guy thing, too.)
Today, some male friendships live and die by fantasy football rules. This week, for example, an anxious commenter asked Deadspin columnist Drew Magary, "Is it possible to kick somebody out of your long-standing fantasy football league and still remain friends with them?" (Magary admitted the situation was delicate—and, probably, no.) The season-long phenomenon in which groups of friends form leagues online, simulate games, trade players, and sign free agents—and sometimes get really, really into it—has created a new model for male bonding since its rise to popularity in the late 1990s.
In writing their 2006 "pro-feminist" look at fantasy sports called "Sports Knowledge Is Power: Reinforcing Masculine Privilege Through Fantasy Sport League Participation," Nickolas W. Davis and Margaret Carlisle Duncan observed fantasy leagues and their behaviors and concluded that fantasy football leagues have even become a "separate space" for men to practice masculinity. They act as an "Old Boys Club," the authors say,
that allows men to communally meet, bond, and redefine what it is to be masculine. Within this space, men can act like men without fear of feminization. Although on a less extreme scale, fantasy sport leagues may be compared to such movements as the Promise Keepers and the mythopoetic men's movement, insofar as they allow men the opportunity to reconstruct hegemonic masculinity in a safe environment, free from feminine influence.
Fantasy football, according to Davis and Duncan, favors the development of traits often recognized as distinctly "masculine": authority, competition, and sports knowledge.
A man in charge of a fantasy football team, they write, may feel he can "symbolically manipulate the athletes who, in a sense, play for him. This sense of control, provided by fantasy sports, allows men to experience the social power that ... owners of professional sports teams possess on a daily basis." Competition, too, "fosters an ideology of male supremacy by allowing men to celebrate their masculinity through verbal acts of aggression, emphasizing power and strength," while "men's sports knowledge and successful moves with player acquisitions act as a source of pride and empowerment, which is communicated in an overtly aggressive, masculine way." In contrast, they add, "individuals who are less well informed are often openly ridiculed for poor draft, trade, and roster structuring decisions. ... Sports knowledge is also used against others who are not statistically knowledgeable, in an attempt to emasculate them by ridicule or taunts."
Duncan and Davis write that league message boards also play a significant role in the exchange of trash talk—a hallowed feature of fantasy football. "Textual analysis of the message board as well as observations also indicates competition as a mode of fortifying masculinity. In particular, the message board offers members the ability to trash talk with one another without having to be physically present," say Duncan and Davis. But those infamous online message boards apparently aren't just a platform for inter-player trolling: They're also, according to Davis and Duncan, breeding grounds for "crude, misogynistic, and heterosexist vernacular as a means of articulating supremacy." According to the authors:
One mode men use to heighten their masculinities is the use of demeaning language to establish their dominance over other participants. These participants do so by putting fellow fantasy leaguers down, referring to them as women, subordinating them and objectifying women in the process by calling these inferior participants pussies. This is often a systematic strategy of reinforcing hegemonic ideals.
The League riffs on the message-board element on a regular basis—only the members use a video-enhanced one. Behold, the awesome, demoralizing power of message-board trash talk (totally not suitable for work, of course):
AND... ANYTHING ELSE? Yup. It's partly for this reason, Davis and Duncan posit, that things can get weird when the idea of female fantasy players surfaces. Focus-group research showed that the introduction of women who were knowledgeable about sports and fantasy sports to the male-dominated world of fantasy football would "create uneasiness, challenging the male's masculinity and supremacy in sport."