A fledgling friend group started a fantasy football league at Harris. Almost a dozen years later, it’s become something much more enduring than a fun distraction.
Only the best get their names on the coveted championship trophy.

The son of a retired diplomat, Bassam Aoun, MPP’12, had lived in Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates, Brazil, Ghana, and Jordan before enrolling at Harris School of Public Policy in 2010.

It was his introduction to Chicago and his first time in the United States. His new friend and classmate, Jason Kanter, MPP’12, thought it would be fun to introduce Aoun to another American institution: football. He did so in the form of a fantasy football league, the wildly popular pastime in which participants are fictive general managers who assemble teams that square off against each other.

But his was a less-than-auspicious start.

“I had no idea what I was getting into,” Aoun said, chuckling.

“Let me tell you, that first season was rough. I made some questionable moves that I cringe about now. It was kind of like playing myself into shape those first couple years.”

Aoun, who considers himself a determined and highly competitive person, learned quickly. In his fourth season, his team won the championship. Last year, he finished in second place.

“This year, I’m going to crush it,” he said.

“I’m going to destroy them all. I am, hands down, the best general manager in the league. The sad thing is that all of us will tell you the exact same thing.”

Trash talk and valued friendships

Like nearly every fantasy football league, the Harris School Alumni Fantasy Football League has its share of trash talk. And, like Aoun’s football prowess, it has evolved into something more than a fun distraction for a bunch of graduate students wanting to engage their inner sports executives.

Entering its twelfth year, the league has the same dozen players except for one or two brief participants. And the amount of bantering is giving way to more substantive conversation. For these longtime friends, the league is their mechanism to stay connected, laugh, and share their journeys.

Friendships remain current, and the members and organizers plan to keep the league going.

“I enjoy it so much, and I love keeping up with the guys,” Aoun said. “It just gives us this touchpoint. It’s like having a standing invite on your calendar.”

Kanter, league founder as well as the commissioner of the league, said participants are engaging in more conference calls out of season and discussing more off-football topics in recent years. They’ve set up a WhatsApp group chat. Players share pictures of their newborn babies and other personal news and announcements.

The COVID-19 pandemic strengthened that connection, Kanter said. More participants became comfortable using online video conferencing platforms. And the isolation of lockdowns left them, like so many people, looking for reasons to socialize.

Part of the league’s appeal also has to do with the realization that keeping a social network intact, especially for men, becomes increasingly difficult.

“As we age, you really start appreciating more and more the relationships that you have,” participant Matthew Kirschenman, MPP ’12, said, “and really learn to make sure that you’re nurturing them, giving them the time they need.”

Another element is graduate school, a defining part of a person’s life, Kanter said. Harris’s extremely challenging curriculum can be galvanizing.

“Going through that battle with friends is definitely a commonality that’s meaningful,” he said. “It’s a two-year journey and it’s good to finish. But it’s even better to stay in contact when you’re not in school.

“Maybe that’s the secret sauce,” Kanter added. “The recognition of the value of these friendships.”

An international league

Kanter founded the league almost on a whim before the start of his second year of classes at Harris in fall 2011. He’d come from the Washington, D.C., area and thought a league would be a fun compliment to the rigors of Harris, a way for a fledgling friend group to coalesce. He also sensed, even then, that the league was resilient socially.

“I already knew that fantasy football was a way for me to stay in touch with friends I’d left in D.C.,” Kanter recalled. “So, for me, starting a league was a way, looking forward, to keep people together; just to keep in touch with friends.”

Kirschenman said he felt the same.

“I figured it would last a long time,” he said. “It’s kind of a low-friction activity—all done on your phone and laptop.”

Ten people signed up for the league. It grew to a dozen within a couple years. In addition to Aoun, Kanter and Kirschenman, the participants include Stephen Coussens, MPP’12; Eric Dropkin, MPP’12; George Letavish, MPP’11; Joe Quille, MPP’12; Alberto Ramos, MPP’12; Brian Sabina, MBA/MPP’13; Matt Smith, MBA/MPP’13 and others.

Although it was started on the South Side of Chicago, the Harris School Alumni Fantasy Football League is international. Aoun resides in Dubai. Another participant is in Japan. Others live in New York, New Jersey, and Texas. Kirschenman resides in California. Three are in the Chicago area. One other participant in addition to Kanter resides in the Washington, D.C., area.

And they work in a variety of fields. Aoun is in financial services. Kirschenman works in consulting. After serving as a staffer on Capitol Hill for many years—most recently on the House Ways and Means Committee—Kanter has transitioned to a policy-related job in the private sector. Letavish, the 2021 winner of Harris’s CC DuBois Alumni Service Award, is Senior Advisor of Federal Policy at the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. Other participants include a university professor, chief economic growth officer for a state economic development authority, and an executive with a national political leadership development organization.

“We’re all over the place, which is reflective of Harris,” Kanter said. “Harris brings people from all over the world and then we all go other places.”

How it unfolds

Fantasy football traces its roots back a half-century before Kanter approached his classmates with plans for a league.

In 1962 Bill Winkenbach, part owner of the Oakland—now Las Vegas—Raiders, assembled friends in a New York City hotel room, where they established the GOPPPL (Greater Oakland Professional Pigskin Prognosticators League). League members drafted professional players at the start of the season and earned points based on their players’ performance over the course of the season.

Last year, ESPN estimated that 40 million people played fantasy football in the United States. A 2018 estimate from the Fantasy Sports & Gaming Association placed the number of players at more than 46 million in the U.S. and Canada.

Fantasy football has a large global participation. Leagues also exist for baseball, basketball, hockey, and soccer but participation in those is much lower than in fantasy football.

The Harris league is a refined version of Winkenbach’s original game. It starts several days before the regular season kickoff, when participants pony up a monetary entrance fee—Kanter prefers to keep the amount confidential but calls it a “de minimis” sum created solely to ensure a participant’s commitment—and hold a live salary-cap draft to select players.

Working with a fixed budget, each team bids to select 13 players—a quarterback, two running backs, two wide receivers, one tight end, a kicker, a “flex” position player, five bench players—and an NFL team’s defensive unit.

Commissioner Kanter schedules head-to-head games between the fantasy franchises. The players and the defense earn points based on performance, all tallied by an ESPN app that allows participants to see their teams’ performances in real time.

Teams with the best records over the 18-game regular season earn spots in the playoffs, which lead to an eventual league champion. The champion wins a modest cash award, and his name is mounted on the league trophy.

‘No reason not to keep going’

Although the competitive juices flow during the season, exchanges between participants are civil, Kanter said.

“I would say with age comes some perspective,” he added, “but there’s some good trash talking at times.”

Kanter would know. Participants claimed that he engages in the most trash talk, a consequence, they said, that stems from his four championships and his allegiance to the New England Patriots.

“I was told specifically,” Kanter said, “not to mention the word ‘dynasty’ in this conversation.”

League participants give him latitude, they said, because Kanter commits so much work to keeping the league thriving. Without him, Kirschenman said, “I don’t know if we all would have stayed in touch, definitely not as a group.”

Aoun said he will fight to keep this league going. “And I think Jason and a lot of the guys are of the same mindset. There’s no reason for us not to keep going.”

Kanter has every intention of keeping the Harris School Alumni Fantasy Football League going for decades. It has stiff competition. The longest college-originated fantasy football league may belong to the Luther College Football League, established in 1980.

“Most of us have started families, gotten married, and had careers, and it's like we even have more in common beyond Harris as time has evolved,” Kanter said. Not everyone can remember what happened a decade ago in grad school, he added.

“We're thankful for the experience,” Kanter said. “But, honestly, I think this is one of the great things that's come from being there—the fact that I've got this social group of friends and that we keep in touch.”