Early on, Damon DuBois’ fantasy football league kept the punishment for the final runner-up pretty tame. The loser should let the champion choose the name of his team for the following year, take care of the housekeeping in the next draft or, at worst, play sports I suck at fantasy football off-season license plate. Nothing crazy.
But in the final weeks of each season, the league members already knocked out of the playoffs were checking. DuBois wanted to up the ante. So about five years ago, he posed the question to the group: what would be a good last-place punishment? And soon after, an answer emerged: cheese shoes. “One of our league teammates, he just started saying it, and we were like, Dude what?!” DuBois told me. “And he was like, Yeah! Let’s just throw a bunch of cheese in our shoes!”
Since then, the loser has been “cheese-cut” in the DuBois hosts’ live draft each year where league members select NFL players for their composite teams. “We tried different varieties,” he said: sliced cheese, spray can cheese, queso dip. The main rule is simply that the loser wears the cheese shoes (no socks, to be clear) for the duration of the draft, usually around four hours. Initially, the plan was to use a single pair of shoes season after season, but it soon became apparent that the inaugural cheese shoes were unsalvageable. One year, a loser opted for breathable running shoes, which quickly extruded cheese through the mesh. Of all fantasy football punishments, DuBois said, “Cheese boots, without a doubt, are the best!”
But, boy, is there a lot of competition. Last place penalties have long been a staple of fantasy football culture for over a decade. 40 million Americans who are in a league. Most of them play for the money and for the sheer fun of it all, cosplaying as general managers who have to build rosters and field teams every week, but many leagues add punishments to keep the members invested throughout the season. In that sense, they are to fantasy sports what fantasy sports are to real sports, John Fortunato, a Fordham University professor who studies fantasy sports, told me: If the purpose of fantasy sports is to inject a additional suspense in otherwise meaningless real-life games, then the purpose of punishments is to inject additional suspense into otherwise meaningless fantasy games.
But over the years, the fanciful punishments have overshot their apparent purpose, and in doing so, seem to have grown more and more absurd. What started out as a convenient mechanism to keep leagues competitive has evolved, or morphed into something much more…involved. It is not uncommon these days for onlookers who witness bizarre or humiliating public behavior to simply presume this to have to be a fancy–Soccer Punishment. These days you really, really don’t want to lose your league.
Nothing, it seems, attracts a certain type of American creative juice like the task of devising new ways to humiliate or torment a good friend. Fantasy football has become so big that it’s an industry in its own right, backed by oceans of online analysis, entire talk shows devoted to it on the biggest sports channels and discussions of endless forum. If you spend time browsing these threads, you’ll start to see the same punishments mentioned over and over. The most canonical of them even spawn their own subgenres. Many leagues do the now infamous Waffle house challenge, where the loser must spend 24 hours in a Waffle House but can subtract one hour for each waffle consumed. See also the IHOP edition (pancakes instead of waffles), the bar edition (12 hours instead of 24, shots instead of waffles), and the elevator edition (only 24 hours up and down, up and down, that’s it). A loser told me he had to look an entire 24-hour season of the television show 24 in 24 hours.
Other leagues require the loser to pass the SAT or ACT, usually with some kind of twist – say the contestant must show up drunk Where high or wearing a full football kit, complete with cleats and shin guards (and must retake the test if they don’t score high enough). It is also popular to make the loser do the grueling exercises that the professionals do to the loser. nfl combine, perform at a stand-up comedy club, or recreate a ESPN The Body Problem Photo shoot. Another classic: The loser must take a giant teddy bear (or, in some versions, a sex doll) to a meet at the restaurant in a fancy restaurant. And that’s not to mention the harshest punishments: eyebrow shaving, navel piercings and tattoos.
No one seems to know exactly when exactly these punishments started, but they’ve been around for at least a decade and probably much longer. Brody Ruihley, a professor at the University of Miami in Ohio who studies fantasy sports, thinks the rise of social media likely played a role in creating the phenomenon, whether by making visible the punishments that leagues were already imposing, encouraging these leagues to make their punishments wackier. , inspiring other leagues to impose their own sanctions, or, most likely, all three. “When we start seeing other people doing things, we get ideas,” Ruihely said. “And then those ideas tend to spiral out of control.”
Sometimes the most innovative ideas are really hilarious: a league does the live broadcast of the last place count to 10,000; another is considering asking this season’s champion to choose a suit for the loser, who then has to leave deceive or treat a day that isn’t Halloween until they get candy from three houses. With the new NFL season – and the new fantasy football season – kicking off in earnest today, we’re in all likelihood about to see the craziest batch of penalties yet.
Other times, the results are simply disgusting. It’s not uncommon for the whimsical punishment talk to devolve into X-rated trolling or actual sadism. On Reddit, a heated debate rages on about the merits and demerits of defecation-themed punishments. Another common theme is abject sexism — not a big surprise, given the demographics of fantasy football, which Ruihley says is heavily male. The worst punishment imaginable? “Go to [sic] WNBA game alone without your phone,” a fantasy enthusiast suggests on Twitter. Dozens of leagues do some version of “pretend to be a woman” – wear a dress, paint your nails, play the role of “beer bitch” at the draft party. Inasmuch as fantasy football penalties are a sort of representative portrait of the average fantasy football player, it’s not flattering. Think of them as adult sisterhood hazing rituals.
Last month, the hazing came for DuBois. His top four draft picks from the previous season had all been “absolutely miserable,” and so this year, for the very first time, he found himself grumbling around the draft in cheesy shoes. He went with the spray can, but “it was actually a terrible idea,” he said. He was constantly slipping in his shoes, and when the cheese started to harden – because that’s what spray can cheese eventually does – things got pretty nasty. “My feet were like hurt. As sharpening. It was really disgusting.
Despite the discomfort of the draft, DuBois likes the look of his team this year. But if things unexpectedly go south again, he’ll double his shoes with sliced cheese this time, plus queso “for maximum cheese.” That, he thinks, would be better. Really, though, he preferred not to know.