An Ex-NFLer Speaks Out About Player Safety, And Fans’ Problematic Relationship With The ‘Bloodsport’

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The world of fantasy football is about instant gratification. One week an NFL player can be a hero to millions of doting diehards. The next he’s a bum, not even worth rostering in a fake league. Fantasy fame is fleeting, but the impact of playing the game on each and every person in the league isn’t.

All 53 guys — not counting practice squad representatives — are still giving their all for the entire season, trying to help their team win and keep their bodies in tact in the process. Former NFL tight end Nate Jackson stood at the nexus of this dichotomy when he sat down to write his second book, Fantasy Man, which comes out on Sept. 20.

Jackson, who got a little notoriety from his first book, Slow Getting Up, has been a staple on the lecture and trade show circuit, primarily for his thoughts on the potential benefits of cannabis use for pain management and recovery. He’s also become an obsessive fantasy football player in his free time. And he grapples with that world and the actual world of the NFL, while taking brief segues to examine the real world outside of football (real and fantasy) in the book.

Fantasy Man traces Jackson’s life over the course of the 2015 season, which saw his former team — the Denver Broncos — win the Super Bowl. Jackson travels from his destination draft, to his high school in San Jose, to Menlo College, to a cannabis conference in Arizona, to Denver, to his part-time home in Venice, California, and to the Super Bowl in San Francisco. He writes about life after football and the strange contrast between fantasy glory and day-to-day life in the NFL.

UPROXX Sports had a long conversation with Jackson on his book, that nation’s fascination with fantasy football, the league’s treatment of NFL players in general, and more.

Martin Rickman: One of the first things you wrote in the book was that you don’t have many fantasy football tips. In the first 20 pages, you give a bunch of tips on why you pick who you pick. The most important thing was you were drafting with your heart. Does that help you enjoy the game more now that you’re outside it?

Nate Jackson: Yeah. To me there’s two kinds of wisdom when it comes to fantasy football in general. The way fantasy football has taken off, it’s put a premium on numbers, statistics, and analysis. All this speculative number chasing, to me, doesn’t capture the nuance of what the game is about. It’s more important that I appreciate the game and the process instead of turning into a stern number evaluator. It’s more fun to go with my heart, the guys I like, the experiences I had, and the things or guys I find interesting. I’m not going to just take the advice of some guy on TV who did a bunch of mock drafts.

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I’ve gone through drafts before where guys are super prepared. They’ve read magazines. They have printouts, and Big Boards. They think putting all this time in is going to help them know who’s going to get hurt or not get hurt. When I do a draft, I’ll get excited about a guy I covered when he was in college. It’s more fun for me that way.

It’s not quite as fun when you follow the advice of some random dude. Even if it works out, it’s not as satisfying as when you’re trusting your own instinct, and your own gut. It’s fun to be the contrarian as well. As you can see in the book, a lot of what I do is to take the contrarian viewpoint to conventional wisdom of what it means to be an NFL football player. What it means to be successful. What it means to be a baller.

When you watch SportsCenter, you’d think there are only five good quarterbacks in the world. Or that there are only 30 good wide receivers in the world. Because those are the ones who are getting the love. They’re the ones who are statistically relevant in the fantasy world. When you’re actually in the NFL, it’s not about the bursts of statistical aptitude. It’s about the daily grind of how to practice, how to be a teammate, how to go to meetings, how to understand your role, how to follow directions, how to be tough, how to get along with guys. It’s such a contrast between what life was like when I was playing and what it’s like now in the fantasy world. Fantasy football has really shined a light on that contrast in the NFL, and I thought it was a good vehicle in the book to show both sides of it.

There’s a section of the book where you mention obsessions being perceived as virtues, and fans being coddled. You outright say “players deserve better fans.”

It’s also creating an odd precedent for the future of football. Fantasy football is informing the way fans are watching the game. They aren’t sitting back, appreciating the contest. Get excited, but don’t sh*t on a guy for making a mistake. These guys are the best in the f*cking world at what they do. There’s no one better. If a guy on the football field drops a pass, or misses a block, it didn’t work for a reason. That’s how the game goes. But people think of it in stats, and the pundits on TV expect perfection. They seem to forget how difficult it was, and that you’re going against professionals on the other side of the ball. They’re pros. They have a lot of pride too.

It is really weird what’s happening to the game at the fan level. These guys will have a bad game fantasy-wise, and get killed on Twitter or whatever. The coaches never mention fantasy stats. They never mention any of that stuff. It’s not relevant to the life of a football player. You’re pulled in a couple different directions here. The expectations of the employer, which has nothing to do with stats. And then the marketing world, and the NFL is about making players available. They’re in the locker room. They’re more front-facing now. I don’t know if it’s healthy for the game.

So much of the book revolves around Peyton Manning. His year last year was the perfect example of that. His stats weren’t good, but they won the Super Bowl.

When you put it all on Peyton and act like if he can’t throw for 300 yards and four touchdowns, he must suck, that diminishes the rest of the team and what they were able to do. I just think that’s a disservice to the entire organization. The Broncos won the Super Bowl. Their defense was amazing. The reason the defense played so strongly was because of how the offense was playing. It’s all a balance. If Peyton had this statistically great year, who knows, maybe the defense would’ve been put in different positions. The recipe should be geared toward winning football games. Not beating a passing record, or having some QBR that’s three-numbers-point-whatever-the-f*ck.

There’s a discussion in there about daily fantasy and the relationship between fantasy sports and the players. Do you get any sense that the union is going to make that a priority and push to get players more? We’re having this discussion in college about name and likeness, and it seems like it’s the same thing here. These are *your* stats. You’re the one doing it.

Football has always been about the team. It’s not about me, it’s about the guy next to me. We’re trying to do this together. Fantasy spins that on its head. It changes the crux of what it means to play football. It’s no longer about the team, or the logo, or the helmet. It’s about your stat line. But the NFL wants to co-op that stat line and presuppose that if it wasn’t about the logo or the team, the stat line wouldn’t matter. Therefore that individual is just part of the logo. His performance is part of the logo’s performance. I don’t agree with that.

These guys are using their actual name, their life, their photo, their health records — which is really problematic. That’s one of the things that’s spun out of control. The health-care sh*t in the NFL. Every injury, every sickness, everything that goes on in a player’s body, even mental health, is fodder for media speculation. It’s public record. It’s something people discuss. It affects the betting lines. And it really affects fantasy football. You need to know who’s hurt if you want to do well, and you have to follow injuries if you want to be on top of it. That’s kind of dangerous. These guys are being used up, and they don’t really have a say in it.

Aside from the money that DFS and other fantasy leagues are making, the obsession with individual stats is affecting injury treatment and privacy. But daily fantasy is in a lot of trouble right now. They’re not making nearly as much money as they said they were.

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They’re out there reporting on your body and telling you what’s going on with your body, but they’re not letting you take care of it the way you want to. If you make a decision that’s your own about whether you’re going to sit longer, or what you want to take (or don’t want to take). There has to be a tipping point with the league where players have control of their own bodies, right? They’re the ones giving it. They’re the ones left with the broken husk when the league spits them out.

The same thing’s going on with Colin Kaepernick right now. They’re saying, “how can you complain about the conditions of black people in this country when you’re an NFL quarterback making millions of dollars?” That’s the argument that appeases people’s guilty conscience when people are participating in this bloodsport just with their eyeballs. They’re putting money into it, and they’re feeding the system. So they feel less guilt when they say, “you’re making millions of dollars; shut up and play.” The physical pain is visceral. It’s constant. It really trumps any number you have in the bank account. That very immediate, daily pain. When I’m on the practice field, I’m not thinking about how much money I’m making. I’m thinking about the fact that I have to fight every play, and I’m getting attacked, and I have to defend myself, and my shoulder hurts, and my ankle hurts. That’s what the reality is.

The players are disempowered by the system, and all their injuries are media fodder. Within the organization they’re giving you pills and treatment that’s team first, not individual first. It’s meant to get you back on the field. If you question the treatment or want more information about it, you’re eyed with suspicion by the team. That’s the f*cked up part of it. If I ask for a second opinion, which you’re allowed to get in the CBA, my team is going to look at me like I’m not buying in. It’s a backwards system.

I think it should be a goal to create a way to get lifetime health insurance once you’re finished. These injuries don’t go away. They get worse when you finish. In a lot of ways there’s a team of people in each franchise that can put Humpty Dumpty back together again every time he falls off the wall. And every game is Humpty Dumpty falling off the wall. You have these skilled specialists working every day to do that. My body is the number one thing in there. They work on every little bit of my body to go out and practice. When you finish playing, all those people disappear. All those realignment techniques, massages, ice and stem, training, it’s all done. I’m on my own and my body starts to fall apart. It takes about four or five years to come down from that experience and realize what you’re working with.

Once guys get out of the league, the last thing they want to do is see more doctors. They want to disappear. They don’t want to talk to anyone. But you only get five years of post-career health coverage. Those five years are guys trying to figure out who they are. They don’t want to go to doctors. They don’t want to get involved. They’re acting like hermits. By the time they come out of that, the health care is gone and they have a bad body. And they’re trying to get a new job. It creates a difficult situation for guys.

It’s navigating that “alien real world” where you have so much invested in football, football, football. You leave, your mind doesn’t know how to adjust, and you have to figure out how to be a human being again with a body that can’t do what you’re used to it doing anymore.

The NFLPA is bargaining. You have your chips, and you play them, and it’s give and take. “I’ll concede on player workouts if you give us HGH testing.” They’re always bargaining with guy’s health. It turns into a political thing. A lot of times the NFLPA is more concerned with money, slices of the pie, than the mental and physical well-being of the players after the game. There could be some much more efficient programs in place for current players to articulate their thoughts. A lot of the problems are strictly language skills. Guys in the NFL were the badass in their town since 11 or 12. They’re kicking everyone’s ass on the field ever since. Certain doors have been opening up, and others have been closing when people are taking care of business for them.

You don’t expand your mind, you don’t use critical thinking skills, you don’t plan, you don’t communicate, you’re not creative. Also, football terminology is the only language you understand. That’s the extent of it. You go out into the real world and you need more than that. They could do more for players, as a transitional service. Something more holistic that trains your body and mind to stop with the football movements and thoughts and become a more well-rounded human being. But that’s a long ways off. It’s a gravy train. It’s all about the money. The hype. The big show. Behind that there’s these men, and these individual human beings who are trying to reconcile what it means to be outside that system.

Have you noticed that more current players have been coming to you and thanking you or reaching out for being an advocate?

It’s definitely cool to see things move a bit. It was slow at first. I wrote my first book, and it got some attention, and I got some guys thanking me or asking me how to become a writer. Football is a keep your pain to yourself thing. Once you’re done playing, it’s really important to separate yourself from that brand. The writing of the book was an exercise in separating myself from the brand and getting my own identity. It was important for me to move on. So I try to impart on these guys that it was the process that was so cathartic for me. It made me feel like a person. The response from the book was great, but it was the process that really freed me. I try to relate that to guys. Find something that’s your passion and put your heart into it outside the game.

From the first book there were a couple paragraphs of me liking to smoke weed instead of taking pills. That’s the main cause that people are happy I talked about. The medicine element, with guys being pumped full of pills and injections, a lot of them prefer smoking weed. They’ve been doing it a long time, and they find it helps them sleep, relax, and it doesn’t make them want to be stupid or turn into junkies. No one is dying from an overdose of marijuana. While 22 Americans die from an overdose of pain pills. This is an option we don’t have under the law in the NFL, but it’s something guys exercise anyway because it works so well for them. There’s been this coalition of former players who are now talking about cannabis. That’s been pretty cool to see it happen. I’m in contact with a lot of guys through that. There’s reputable organizations and universities recruiting players to be part of clinical trials to see what’s working and what’s not, and if cannabis is a viable option.