Fantasy football season is around the corner, which means most of your friends are devouring every mock draft they can get their hands on, looking to get a leg up on you when your draft comes. Networks like ESPN know this, so they're offering up every piece of mock draft content they can possibly offer.
Unfortunately for the "worldwide leader," that programming directive got real problematic, real quick. Rather than show off the classic "snake" draft most football fans use to determine their fantasy rosters, an ESPN segment briefly showed a clip of an auction, with Odell Beckham Jr. being "sold" to a group of bidders in the crowd.
The visual of a crowd of overwhelmingly white people bidding on a black man quickly caught the attention of Twitter, including commentators and activists like Shaun King and DeRay Mckesson. Many questioned the motivation and purpose of the sketch for ESPN's audience, and King even went so far as to demand an apology from the network on his Twitter page.
How. How does not one person stand up and say "Yoooooooo maybe let's not do this." ?!?! https://t.co/OVJplRlLfb— Stephen White (@sgw94) August 15, 2017
for why? https://t.co/qrLa2FhDog— deray mckesson (@deray) August 15, 2017
Welp. They clearing didn't run this idea by any black people 😬🤦🏽♂️ https://t.co/OuoeIouhip— Derek Minor (@thederekminor) August 15, 2017
what. the. fuck. https://t.co/39eRtQHv33— Russ Bengtson (@russbengtson) August 15, 2017
As others pointed out, however, auction drafts are a very real thing in the fantasy football world. Participants are allotted a budget heading into the draft, which they can use to bid on players and shape their roster however they want. Because it gives participants to get anyone they want on their team, many fantasy football players prefer this method to the traditional snake style, as it gives them more autonomy in assembling a team.
I'm with you on 99.8% of things, but this is a type of fantasy football draft, auction style, where all players are auctioned off. Calm down— Ernie Estrella (@ErnieEstrella) August 15, 2017
It's an auction draft, which is a type of fantasy football draft available. No need for the outrage.— Delicious Castle (@IP_eXcellence) August 15, 2017
Everyone who has a problem with this auction draft clearly knows nothing about fantasy football. Relax people.— Mr. Bottoms (@MrBottoms34) August 15, 2017
I don’t think this is a situation to go crazy about. It’s a fantasy draft & the players are mostly black. Plus @OBJ_3 is the best player— Mo Childs (@mo_childs) August 15, 2017
The truth here is probably somewhere in the middle. Had the player in question been someone like Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady, the visual of a white crowd and an auctioneer barking out prices would not look so bad. It's an easily avoidable problem, and with a more diverse group of participants in the exercise, this wouldn't look as bad as it does. The style of the auction matters too; most are conducted remotely from behind computer screens, and translating that back into a "traditional" auction—and one with a white dude yelling prices for a black athlete to boot—invokes deeply hurtful imagery from America's past.
At the same time, there is some ignorance on display from people unaware of this being a thing in fantasy football world. ESPN has devoted more and more coverage to the format in recent years, and if you look through "cheat sheets" for any of the major fantasy sites, you will find estimated "values" for players of all colors based on theoretical auction budgets. This isn't a new thing. That doesn't make it inherently good or right, but seems to point to the optics being the motivating factor behind unrest here.
And really, that shouldn't be the case. I wouldn't go so far as to say fantasy football is in itself problematic, but some of the cultural side effects of the hobby certainly are. So-called "fans" take to social media on game day, berating players on their fantasy teams over injuries or lacking production, losing sight of the fact that yes, these are human beings and not your property. Some people know where to draw the line, but thousands, perhaps even millions of people really don't, and that's a conversation that's worth having.
ESPN shouldn't suspend all coverage of auction drafts, but they do need to be more conscious of how they do so. I'm not sure what the solution is, but I know you're probably not going to find it in a crowd where people of color are hardly represented at all.