Evangeline Bauerle is by all accounts a benevolent ruler. The two-time defending champion of She FF, a local all-female fantasy football league, refuses to subject her vanquished foes to demeaning tasks or punishments, like the winners of many fantasy sports leagues do.
Instead, during a recent chat with league mate Hannah Purnell, Bauerle even let the former champion reconnect with the league trophy — a bedazzled crown adorned with a sparkly football on the front. In keeping with league tradition, Purnell held the crown during her two stints as champion, proudly displaying it on her living room mantle during those years.
To get it back, Purnell will have to usurp Bauerle’s team, the Mystic Farts, who have been a fixture atop the standings during the league’s eight-year run.
“I was also regular-season champion a couple of times,” Bauerle says, recalling seasons when her bid for the title fell short in the playoffs. “But that doesn’t count for anything, except for in my heart and in the screenshots I keep of the trophy case.”
These women are not alone in their pursuit of glory at the expense of their friends. More than 59 million people played fantasy sports in 2017, which is more than double the 27 million who participated in 2009, according to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association. The FSTA estimates the industry to be worth more than $7 billion annually.
The premise of fantasy football is simple: Participants are the general managers of their teams, which accumulate points based on players’ real-life performances each week. Score more points than your opponent, win that week’s game. A playoff bracket during the final weeks of the National Football League’s regular season determines the fantasy league champion.
Things can get pretty serious. Hardcore leagues have been known to cost last-place finishers the indignity of tattoos at the behest of the winner. Others are forced to wear signs in public detailing their shameful lack of fantasy prowess. League websites keep track of past winners for all to see.
“I used to be a lot more intense about it when I had a corporate job that didn’t demand much of me,” says Purnell, a 37-year-old freelance writer and former CityBeat staffer. “I would spend a really good portion of my day setting my fantasy teams. I’ve fallen off a little bit in recent years.”
Bauerle’s current pursuit of a three-peat almost didn’t happen. Frustrated by the NFL’s leniency with players involved in domestic violence and worn out by the election of admitted pussy-grabber Donald Trump, the ladies of She FF nearly canceled the league this year.
It was exhausting, they say, to continually see the NFL come down easy on players guilty of committing violence against women. During a day and age when the NFL drops full-year bans on players who smoke weed, a team like the Bengals will spend a second-round draft pick on Joe Mixon, the former University of Oklahoma running back who was caught on video punching a woman in the face.
“We are a league of women,” says Susan Fielding, a 44-year-old wedding photographer and former She FF champ herself. “And I think that was our initial problem: What is the message we’re putting out there as a group of women, even if it’s passively supporting an organization that so clearly disregards our safety as women?”
After considerable debate, the group chose not to abandon what had become a fun and supportive community where longtime friends share in their enjoyment of pro football and friendly competition. They also didn’t want to give up the annual draft-day pool party at Fielding’s place where the “10th round plunge” — a group splash into the pool after shots of booze — takes place.
“Draft day is better than Christmas,” Fielding says. “That’s the best day of the year for me.”
Instead, they decided to add a critical new provision to the league rules: No one is allowed to roster any player implicated in domestic violence.
“In times like these you kind of have to put your money where your mouth is, and it’s kind of hard to reconcile your feminist beliefs with an organization that clearly doesn’t value that,” Fielding says.
With all in favor — and an agreement to donate a portion of league fees to local nonprofit Women Helping Women — She FF set about creating a new fantasy league with parameters that allow conscientious women to feel OK about supporting the NFL.
• • •
The NFL is not necessarily the pariah of professional sports, but it’s safe to say that its PR department stays pretty busy.
The league is currently facing intense pressure over players kneeling during the national anthem in protest of police brutality in America. President Trump even took to Twitter to call out the NFL and its owners for allowing the gesture, even though it is protected under the players’ union contract.
Owners’ demands for new taxpayer-funded stadiums and their willingness to de-root franchises in search of higher profits continue to turn off average fans. The heightened awareness of head injuries and tragic effects of a degenerative brain condition called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, promise to stay in the news for the foreseeable future.
Still, violence against women has been a consistent issue during the tenure of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who has admitted to mistakes in handling these situations over the years.
You can trace the start of the NFL’s about-face on domestic violence to its handling of the Ray Rice case. In 2014, an elevator surveillance camera captured video of the Baltimore Ravens running back punching his then-fiancée in the face, knocking her out cold, then dragging her limp body off the elevator.
Questions arose over when the league, team and coaches knew about the video, with evidence suggesting they might have ignored it during a dramatic series of events meant to get Rice back on the field as soon as possible. Goodell, who had initially suspended Rice for only two games, ended up suspending him indefinitely once the video became public. Rice fought the suspension in court and was eventually reinstated, though no team would sign him and he never played again.
Goodell admitted missteps in the process and announced a new domestic violence policy that would suspend players for six games for a first offense and order a lifetime ban for a second.
“My disciplinary decision led the public to question our sincerity, our commitment, and whether we understood the toll that domestic violence inflicts on so many families,” Goodell wrote in a letter to NFL owners. “I take responsibility both for the decision and for ensuring that our actions in the future properly reflect our values. I didn’t get it right. Simply put, we have to do better. And we will.”
Just one year later, the Dallas Cowboys had no issue signing free agent defensive end Greg Hardy to a contract, even though he had been accused of throwing his ex-girlfriend onto a futon piled with semiautomatic guns and choking and threatening to kill her. Hardy had been found guilty of two counts of domestic violence, but his case was dismissed on appeal after the victim didn’t show up in court. Prosecutors said she and Hardy reached a financial settlement, which hurt their case.
Since then, more than a dozen players have been arrested for domestic violence, battery or sexual battery, according to a USA Today database of NFL arrests.
There was a time when the Bengals were infamous for employing players with criminal records, and in recent years guys like Adam “Pacman” Jones have continued to wear out the Hamilton County court system.
But the drafting of Mixon was different.
During college at Oklahoma, a café surveillance camera captured the 6-foot-1-inch, 226-pound Mixon laying out a woman with a vicious right cross, causing her to fall face-first into a table, breaking her jaw and other bones in her face. (Video here — warning: it's gross.)
Many NFL teams decided they would not draft Mixon. But the Bengals saw value in selecting him with their second-round pick this past April, believing him to be a first-round talent.
“I don’t know who isn’t disgusted at what they saw,” Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said during a post-draft press conference. “But that’s one day in the young man’s life. He’s had to live that since then. He will continue to have to live that. And he gets an opportunity to move forward and write a script from there on.”
The move was heavily criticized locally.
Longtime Cincinnati Enquirer columnist Paul Daugherty wrote that seeing Bengals all-time great Anthony Munoz announce the Mixon pick made him feel like crying.
“The Bengals have forfeited any and all rights to the word ‘character’ as a descriptive,” Daugherty wrote. “They have lost all remaining sympathy from anyone who still believed Cincinnati’s miscreants were no different than any other team’s miscreants.”
ESPN 1530 radio host Mo Egger wrote that the story of the victim, Amelia Molitor, is better and more important than Mixon's.
The editorial board of WCPO.com called for a boycott of the team, writing, “Apparently, Mike Brown, Marvin Lewis and the Bengals management think winning is all that matters. Apparently, those franchise leaders don’t care about potentially alienating the team’s female fans.”
The Mixon selection was also tough to stomach for the women of She FF.
“The Bengals have always been kind of a big group of misfits anyway,” Fielding says, “but that kind of brought it all together.”
The NFL’s attempts to cater to its female viewers over the years hasn’t landed well, either. It turns out that adding a pink color scheme to uniforms during Breast Cancer Awareness Month doesn’t do much to assuage the discomfort of a woman rooting for a verified wife beater.
“I think it was just so many things compounding,” says Bauerle, the reigning champ who is also a designer at a local branding agency. “We’re not stupid — obviously the NFL is a business and we get that if they’re courting women it’s just to increase their viewership. But sometimes I just wish the NFL could be smarter about it.”
To distance themselves from these realities, Fielding set about creating the “undraftables” list. Any player implicated in a situation involving violence against women, convicted or not, would be formally added to a Google spreadsheet — along with his position, charge and number of arrests — and banned from ownership in the league.
USA Today’s handy database of NFL player arrests was a good place to start. The website details 876 arrests dating back to 2000, searchable by year, team or position. A quick scroll reveals the details of lesser crimes like violating court orders and eluding police, along with the more heinous: assault, battery, domestic violence and sexual assault — even a handful of murder charges.
The database includes the following editor’s note: “It cannot be considered fully complete because records of some player arrests might not have been found for various reasons, including lack of media coverage or accessible public records.”
Compiling the undraftables was more daunting than Fielding expected. Defensive players abound on the bad-guys list, but most fantasy leagues don’t draft individual defensive players. Fielding considered scrapping the team defense position but decided not to go that far.
“It got a little sticky because not all of those were confirmed and some were just charges, not necessarily convictions,” Fielding says.
But, as league commissioner, Fielding wielded unilateral power over the players, and she ended up banning a total of 11. Among them was Dallas Cowboys rstar running back Ezekiel Elliott, who is currently serving a six-game suspension related to accusations of domestic violence against him in 2016. Even though criminal charges were never filed, the NFL suspended Elliott after its own investigation. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones — the same man who signed Hardy — pushed back, criticizing Goodell’s handling of the situation and fighting against the commissioner’s recently signed $200 million, five-year contract extension because of it.
Fielding posted the spreadsheet in the league Facebook group, accompanied by the following note: “Here is our list of shame. I limited this list to active, offensive players. USA Today has a running list of all NFL arrests. Don’t look it up. It’s depressing.”
• • •
Because the league was renewed so late, She FF moved to an online draft for the first time, which was kind of a bummer. No pool party or 10th-round plunge. No old-school draft board covered in color-coded stickers. No cigarettes dangling from the mouths of intensely focused managers.
Nevertheless, the draft on Sept. 1 went as well as could be expected considering the unfamiliar format and the collection of alleged criminals on everyone’s minds. But the online draft room made it somewhat difficult to respect the undraftables list as the pace picked up.
“Autodraft kept putting people up who were on the list,” Fielding says. “The next pick would be Tyreek Hill or Ben Roethlisberger and we’d have to go back and stop the draft and redo it.”
The first pick — and the right to draft dynamic Arizona Cardinals running back David Johnson — went to Dana Burns’ team, called My Ball Zach Ertz. Bauerle’s Mystic Farts scored the second pick and selected Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell. Kelly Kampsen chose hometown guy A.J. Green to start her Turd Ferguson squad. Carley Manning’s team, MagnificentBush, and Fielding’s team, Ginger kids have no Sproles, rounded out the first round with Atlanta’s Devonta Freeman and Tennessee’s DeMarco Murray, respectively.
Things were rolling along for She FF through the end of September, aside from a few early-season pickups of banned players.
“I had to call a couple people out and say, ‘Hey you have to drop this dude,’ ” Fielding says “By Week 4 we kind of all had our shit together.”
Then on Thursday, Oct. 5, The New York Times broke the Harvey Weinstein story, detailing decades of alleged sexual assault by the Hollywood mogul. Subsequent reporting on the likes of Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose and Louis shined a light on the extent of sexual harassment and sexual assault in the workplace. Even the NFL Network, which is owned by the league, just last week suspended three former players working as analysts after a former female staffer filed a lawsuit accusing them and a producer of sexual harassment.
The downfall of these powerful men — and others in top positions from government to media to business — was a welcome change for women used to seeing such indiscretions shrugged off.
“I think that what’s happening right now in pop culture and in the world of politics is part of the reason that we’ll keep doing it,” Purnell says. “Because finally there’s a moment where it’s public, and I know that sounds really trite but it just felt so hopeless there for a minute. Now that there’s a national conversation, it’s like, ‘OK. Maybe I don’t have to give up everything that I love just because the world is awful.’ ”
Instances of sexual assault and violence against women are well documented and pervasive, especially in the workplace. Recent reporting has depicted the barriers women face in reporting sexual harassment and abuse, from top Hollywood actresses to women working in restaurants.
The statistics paint a dire picture: One out of every six American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, the country’s largest anti-sexual violence organization. Twelve percent of sexual assault survivors were working at the time of the assault. Only six out of every 1,000 perpetrators of sexual assault end up in prison, according to RAINN.
The national conversation about these issues has given women hope that things could change for the better, however conflicted they might be about football.
“I’ve read a bunch of articles about people feeling similar,” Bauerle says. “You have to keep talking about it. These rules help you to be aware of it — have it on your mind and talk to other people about it.”
Discussing their rule changes and the planned donation to Women Helping Women prompted Purnell’s husband’s league to also donate a portion of its fees to a women’s charity.
“That’s kind of cool,” Purnell says. “That sort of keeps us going, like a sense of purpose — having a conversation and making other people aware that you can be a football fan and also a feminist.”
Like many fantasy leagues, She FF is more of a social space than a cut-throat competition — a way for friends, family members and co-workers to stay connected as people grow up, build families and drift apart over time. One of She FF’s participants lives in Denver. Another just had twins. Most take part in an all-female lake trip every year.
“I think the conclusion we ended up with,” Purnell says, “was that keeping a group of women hanging out together was important.”
Last week, seven of the league's 12 members — along with Burns' two little girls — gathered at The Hannaford in Covington to watch the Sunday games of semifinal week. Amid day drinks, a Bengals meltdown and at least one conversation about anxiety manifesting itself as rage during one's 30s — a downer subject but apropos for these times and this group — it was the league's blue bloods who advanced to the She FF finals.
This coming weekend, Bauerle and Purnell will face off for the title of Miss She FF 2017. Either Baurle will retain the crown for a third straight year or Purnell will reclaim it, representing her third overall championship. Surprisingly, these two have never squared off in the championship match.
"Send good vibes," Purnell says. "She’s ruthless." ©