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This article was first published by Nash News, a newspaper at Nash Correctional Institution in Nashville, North Carolina. The article has been lightly edited to add clarity and conform with PJP style rules.

After scanning the article, he rushed to Doc’s cell and handed him the newspaper. 

The Commissioner, a fantasy football enthusiast, had spent the summer trying, unsuccessfully, to convince Doc to participate in his upcoming prison fantasy football league. 

Doc, a former college basketball player, was a devoted, equal-opportunity sports fan. Suffering from debilitating back pain and on the backside of 60, he was far removed from his playing days. The Commissioner knew Doc would love fantasy football if he could just persuade him to participate. “I ain’t gonna play that mess,” he said as if fantasy football were a child’s game. 

With the current barrage of commercials for FanDuel and Draft Kings, one might assume fantasy football was relatively new. However, the first fantasy football league was started in 1962 when the part-owner of the Oakland Raiders, Bill Winkenbach, hoping to generate more interest in the struggling sport, created the first fantasy league with some friends.

The basic concept of fantasy football is still the same today. Fantasy participants, in a draft or auction, select actual NFL players to fill their rosters. Based on their players’ performances each week in real NFL games—yards, receptions, touchdowns, etc.—the league member receives points. The member with the most points wins. And like in the NFL, the person who runs the league is usually called the Commissioner. 

While fantasy football has existed since 1962, it didn’t catch on until the internet era provided a place to host leagues and follow game statistics in real-time. Before the internet, participants waited for the morning paper to score their players. 

At some point, fantasy football invaded prisons. 

Nash Correctional resident James Jarman said he has played at every prison he has been at. “Playing fantasy football is a productive way to spend my time,” he said. “It keeps my mind active and is a stress reliever.” He added that when he’s thinking about fantasy football he doesn’t feel like he is in prison anymore. 

At Nash Correctional, one can find multiple fantasy leagues, both traditional, year-long leagues as well as weekly salary-cap leagues. 

While the hours spent preparing for a fantasy draft, watching games, and planning starting lineups may not provide a skill for finding a job post-incarceration, it does, for many incarcerated individuals, provide meaning in an often-monotonous environment. 

Fantasy football in prison looks more similar to the 1962 league than today’s internet-based ones. In prison, game statistics are transferred to score sheets and calculated by hand, where league notebooks resemble accounting ledgers. 

“There’s a mathematical element to it, along with statistical analysis,” said Eric Cox, who is running his own fantasy league this season. “It promotes research and study with a clear, sober mind … It’s often those who are best prepared that emerge victorious.” 

As the NFL season nears, fantasy draft guide books and magazines arrive at prisons everywhere. Each player is looking for an advantage over their competition. In this internet-free environment, a book, news article, or injury report provides a leg up on their opponents. 

Lacy Smith, who has been playing fantasy football in prison since 2011 said, “I get all my info from the tablet and ESPN.” 

The tablet, which has only been at Nash for one fantasy season, has the potential to level the playing field of fantasy participants, and even limit some of the bookkeeping necessary for prison leagues. Currently, its benefits are minimal and limited to a handful of relevant news articles under the ESPN NFL Section in the News app, but it still provides more current information than newspapers and snail mail updates. 

ESPN estimates that more than 40 million people in the United States play fantasy football. With such a broad market, they produce regular TV and radio shows, along with a full-day marathon of programming, dedicated solely to fantasy football. When these shows are airing in prison, it’s easy to locate the fantasy player in each housing unit. 

Former NFL quarterback Michael Vick, who served 17 months in prison for his role in a dogfighting ring, spoke to USA Today of his experience with fantasy football in prison. 

“These guys are almost like statisticians, keeping everyone’s stats,” Vick said. “I don’t know if I had that much time in the day, to know how many yards Joe Flacco threw for.” 

Some fantasy players, like Nash Correctional resident Robert Ingram, don’t feel the need to spend countless hours studying for the draft and preparing weekly starters. “I’ve never purchased a draft guide,” he said. “I feel like I know as much as those authors.” 

Ingram was introduced to fantasy football by his bunk neighbor at Harnett Correctional in 2018. “I assumed fantasy football was something only geeks were into, kind of like the same crowd who plays fantasy board games (i.e., Dungeons and Dragons),” he said. “(My bunk neighbor) was the first street dude I met who was into fantasy football.” 

Fantasy football in prison is not exclusive to football fans or a specific stereotype. The Nash News’ own Jason Williford, who writes Gamer’s Corner, admits to not watching football until he participated in his first fantasy football league a few years ago at Nash. Now, Williford can be seen in front of the television each Sunday, rooting for his players, taking little notice of who wins the games.

While race, gang affiliation, and other social classes play a role in everyday prison life, fantasy football does not discriminate. Black or White, football fans or football sans, newly incarcerated or old head — it’s all about the competition. “Fantasy football was one of the first things in prison that included me as a part of a social environment,” said Cox. 

Whether it was the article, peer pressure, or his love of sports, Doc eventually relented and joined the Commissioner’s fantasy league, and his league the following year. Doc kept a special notebook full of cryptic fantasy football notes and stats that he took time each day to study and write in. 

In the final few minutes of a blowout game during the 2018 season, the trailing team scored an insignificant touchdown. The scoring player was on Doc’s fantasy team. Doc jumped out of his chair, ran to the front of the housing block, and thrusting and jiving, performed a jig that brought thunderous laughter to all spectators, except for the Commissioner, his fantasy opponent that week. At that moment, his back pain disappeared and he was no longer in prison.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

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Mark Mercer

Mark Mercer is a writer and journalist for Nash News, a publication out of Nash Correctional Institution in North Carolina.