There’s Nothing Quite Like the Wrath of Losing Your Fantasy League

You really don’t want to get “cheese-shoed.”

A football pennant with the text "Loser."
Paul Spella / The Atlantic; Shutterstock

At first, Damon DuBois’s fantasy-football league kept the punishment for the last-place finisher fairly tame. The loser would have to let the champion select their team name for the following year, take care of the housekeeping at the next draft, or, at worst, sport an I suck at fantasy football license plate all off-season. Nothing crazy.

But by the final weeks of each season, league members already eliminated from playoff contention were checking out. DuBois wanted to raise the stakes. So about five years ago, he put the question to the group: What would be a good last-place punishment? And before long, an answer emerged: cheese shoes. “One of our league mates, he just started saying it, and we were like, Dude, what?!” DuBois told me. “And he was like, Yeah! Let’s just dump a bunch of cheese in our shoes!

Ever since, the loser has gotten “cheese-shoed” at the live draft DuBois hosts each year where the league members select NFL players for their made-up teams. “We’ve tried different varieties,” he said: sliced cheese, spray-can cheese, queso dip. The main rule is just that the loser wear the cheese shoes (sockless, to be clear) for the full duration of the draft—usually about four hours. Initially, the plan was to use a single pair of shoes season after season, but it soon became clear that the inaugural cheese shoes were beyond salvage. One year, a loser opted for breathable running shoes, which promptly extruded cheese through the mesh. Of all the fantasy-football punishments out there, DuBois said, “cheese shoes, without a doubt, is the best!”

But, boy, is there a lot of competition. Last-place punishments have long been an essential part of fantasy-football culture for the more than 40 million Americans who are part of a league. Most of them play for money and the sheer fun of it all, cosplaying as general managers who have to construct rosters and field teams each week, but many leagues add punishments to keep members invested all season long. In this sense, they are to fantasy sports what fantasy sports are to real sports, John Fortunato, a Fordham University professor who studies fantasy sports, told me: If the point of fantasy sports is to inject extra suspense into otherwise meaningless real-life games, then the point of the punishments is to inject extra suspense into otherwise meaningless fantasy games.

But over the years, fantasy punishments have outgrown their ostensible purpose and in the process seem to have gotten progressively more absurd. What started as a practical mechanism to keep leagues competitive has evolved, or devolved, into something far more … involved. It’s not rare nowadays for onlookers witnessing some bit of bizarre or humiliating public behavior to simply assume it must be a fantasy-football punishment. These days, you really, really don’t want to lose your league.

Nothing, it seems, gets a certain type of American’s creative juices flowing like the task of designing novel ways to humiliate or torment a good friend. Fantasy football has gotten so big that it’s an industry unto itself, sustained by oceans of online analysis, whole talk shows devoted to it on the biggest sports channels, and endless forum discussions. If you spend time scrolling through those discussions, you’ll start to see the same punishments mentioned over and over. The most canonical of them even spawn their own subgenres. Many leagues do the now-infamous Waffle House challenge, wherein the loser must spend 24 hours in a Waffle House but can subtract an hour for each waffle consumed. See also the IHOP edition (pancakes instead of waffles), the bar edition (12 hours instead of 24, shots instead of waffles), and the elevator edition (just 24 hours riding up and down, up and down—that’s it). One loser told me he had to watch an entire 24-hour season of the TV show 24 in 24 hours.

Other leagues require the loser to take the SAT or ACT, usually with some sort of twist—say, that the test taker must show up drunk or high or dressed in a full soccer kit, complete with cleats and shin guards (and must retake the test if they don’t score high enough). Also popular are making the loser do the grueling drills professionals do at the NFL combine, perform at a stand-up-comedy club, or re-create an ESPN The Body Issue photo shoot. Another classic: The loser must take a giant teddy bear (or, in some versions, a sex doll) on a dinner date to a fancy restaurant. And that’s not even to mention the most hardcore punishments: eyebrow shavings, belly-button piercings, and tattoos.

No one seems to be quite sure when exactly these punishments started, but they’ve been around for at least a decade, and probably a lot longer. Brody Ruihley, a professor at Miami University in Ohio who studies fantasy sports, thinks the emergence of social media probably played some role in creating the phenomenon, whether by making visible the punishments leagues were already imposing, encouraging those leagues to make their punishments more outlandish, inspiring other leagues to impose punishments of their own, or, most likely, all three. “When we start seeing other people do things, we get ideas,” Ruihely told me. “And then those ideas tend to spin out of control.”

Sometimes, the most innovative ideas are genuinely hilarious: One league makes last place live-stream themselves counting to 10,000; another is considering having this season’s champion select a costume for the loser, who must then go trick-or-treating on a day that’s not Halloween until they get candy from three houses. With the new NFL season—and the new fantasy-football season—kicking off in earnest today, we are in all likelihood about to see the wildest batch of punishments yet.

Other times, the results are just disgusting. Not infrequently, fantasy punishment discourse devolves into X-rated trolling or actual sadism. On Reddit, an impassioned debate rages on over the merits and demerits of defecation-themed punishments. Another common theme is abject sexism—no great surprise, given the demographics of fantasy football, which, according to Ruihley, skew heavily male. Worst punishment imaginable? “Go to [sic] WNBA game alone without your phone,” one fantasy enthusiast suggests on Twitter. Dozens of leagues do some version of “pretend to be a woman”—wear a dress, paint your nails, play the role of “beer bitch” at the draft party. To the extent that fantasy-football punishments constitute any sort of representative portrait of the average fantasy-football player, it is not a flattering one. Think of them as fraternity-hazing rituals for adults.

Last month, the hazing came for DuBois. His top four draft picks the previous season had all been “absolutely wretched,” and so this year, for the first time ever, he found himself clomping around the draft party in cheese shoes. He went with the spray can, but “that actually was a terrible idea,” he said. He was constantly sliding around in his shoes, and when the cheese started to harden—because that, it turns out, is what spray-can cheese eventually does—things got quite unpleasant. “My feet were, like, hurting. Like, grinding. It was really disgusting.”

Draft-day discomfort notwithstanding, DuBois likes the look of his team this year. But if things unexpectedly go south again, he’ll line his shoes with sliced cheese this time, plus queso “for maximum cheesiness.” That, he thinks, would be better. Really, though, he’d rather not find out.