Three rounds into my fantasy football draft last week, my co-manager and I were cruising. We’d snagged Kansas City Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles, Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Roddy White and Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace, in that order, when we made a critical error. Under time pressure, we failed to double-check that we had the right player highlighted in Yahoo’s fantasy system and accidentally took Carolina Panthers quarterback Derek Anderson. The deep boneheadedness of wasting a fourth-round pick on a quarterback I wouldn’t have even considered as a backup was a new kind of agony for this fantasy newbie. In an effort to move beyond narrow, team-based rooting — and an experiment in guy culture — I decided to kick in $50 and help run a team, and to take FX’s fantasy-football sitcom “The League” as my guide.
“The League,” which debuted in 2009 and returns for a third season on Oct. 6, is ostensibly about the way fantasy football ties together a group of friends, but it’s also a minor gem about how men regulate their behavior around women, and around each other. When I first started watching the show, part of the fascination was the chance to observe a phenomenon that I’ll never be able to see myself: what a tight-knit group of guys acts like when there are no women in the room — rape jokes, smack talk and slightly creepy innuendoes about their wives. It’s not that in the absence of women, the main characters are free to indulge their inner sexists. These men — dorky, divorced and overmatched by their hot wives — after all, are our heroes. It’s that they have space where they can say wildly inappropriate things without anyone believing they mean it.
It’s interesting to see the characters come up against their limits. In the second season, Ruxin (Nick Kroll) convinces his friends to let his wife’s cousin Rafi join the league — only for all of them to get uncomfortable when, among other things, he gets a little too casual with the rape talk. Similarly, the league’s championship trophy is named for Shiva, the valedictorian in the men’s graduating class who’s outgrown her nerdy high school identity to become a beautiful doctor. When Andre, one of the league members, begins dating her after she moves back to town, he gets skittish when his friends make jokes about their memories of Shiva and their attempts to harass her. Once one of your recently divorced friends starts faking prostate trouble to make an unnecessary appointment with your urologist girlfriend, well, suddenly the joke isn’t funny anymore. Of course, when Andre starts bragging about bedding Shiva to sound like one of the guys, he pays for it with a dumping and a severe case of bruised testicles.
Even more than the question of how men behave when women are safely outside their circle is what happens when the characters in “The League” come into contact with women who can compete with them on a level playing field. There’s the stripper in Las Vegas who, overhearing the league members’ pre-draft speculation, dismissively tells them that “[San Diego Chargers quarterback] Philip Rivers isn’t going before the third in any of my mock drafts … I won my league last year.” Then she lets them hire her for draft consultations.
And there’s Jenny — who is married to Kevin, the league’s commissioner — who demands to be let into the league as an equal player after years of helping her husband coach his team. (When her insistence on starting Peyton Manning costs Kevin a playoff game, she even suffers the consequence of the usual bet and walks naked down an alley.) “I have all this knowledge! I need to use it!” Jenny tells him. “Give it to me!” Kevin resists, hoping he can get her to commit to staying usefully on the sidelines. But Jenny’s not dissuaded, explaining that she’s sick of watching Kevin waste her insights. “I love my wife but I don’t want her in the league,” Kevin grumbles to his friends. “This is my thing.” But after Rafi’s kicked out, Kevin and the guys let her in — and she proves to be a fierce competitor. As they negotiate sex as rival managers (“I don’t want to talk smack while I”m about to enter you,” Kevin complains), trade waiver priorities and family chores, and figure out how Jenny fits into beer-and-bull sessions, they’re not just adjusting to her role as the league’s first female member — they’re figuring out their marriage.
I don’t have a marriage to be improved by fantasy football, and my co-manager and I have been drinking beer and arguing about sports together for years. I didn’t have to fight for my right to fret over how Peyton Manning’s metastasizing neck problems are going to impact Colts receiver Pierre Garcon’s performance this year. But I’ve already learned one lesson about manhood and football from playing with the boys: Don’t let anyone else draft for you without confirming your picks first. And the season doesn’t even start until 8:30 p.m.