Every other week in The Coach’s Box, Timothy Thomas explores the various lessons that can be learned from the world of sports.

As I write this, we are just about out of sports’ dark season, that time of year when the only highlights on SportsCenter’s Top 10 are incredible baseball outfield catches, tennis returns, soccer goals, WNBA trick shots, and above-average golf strokes. While these are all fantastic feats by spectacular athletes, it’s still a slow season. But now we have the Women’s World Cup, the second (and more exciting) half of the baseball season, basketball off-season moves, and finally, the almighty football season!

Football season is like the start of a new year in America. It’s a time of gathering around family, food, and emotionally charged fun. Fantasy football is a part of that fun (and frustration).

If you’ve never played fantasy football before, then this might be the season to start, even if you don’t know much (or anything) about (American) football. It’s a great way to learn about the game and specific players. But more importantly, it’s a great way to gather, build community, and learn about your neighbors, coworkers, and yourself through a superficial medium.

Fantasy football is all about accessing fun, community, and relationships using strategy and efficiency. This Britannica article offers a brief history and breakdown of the general rules, but here’s the basic premise of what’s required if and when you decide to play.

First, find a league to join, usually on a web platform or app like ESPN’s Fantasy Football, NFL Fantasy, or Yahoo. If you don’t know any leagues to join, this is one of the first places where you’ll have the opportunity to build a relationship with people around you. I guarantee you know someone in a fantasy football league if you live in the United States. Don’t be shy. Ask around.

Next, create a team. Part of the fun in getting to know the people you compete against is assessing the team names they make. The team names usually (but not always) are related to an NFL team or player. For example, I’m a Baltimore Ravens fan, a team historically known for their great defense. So one year, I named my team “Bal-D-more,” which was also a play on the inner-city African American Baltimore accent. Another year, I called my team “BalLamar,” a play on both the starting superstar quarterback Lamar Jackson and the “hon” accent of Baltimore’s white working class. This year, the Ravens signed superstar wide receiver Odell Beckham, Jr., so maybe I’ll name my team “OdellMeMore.”

Then, draft the best available players and defense in the NFL that can score points (touchdowns, field goals, etc.). Your league commissioner/administrator will set up a draft day where everyone can pick their players and build their team. If you don’t know any NFL players or are unaware of their skill levels, you can usually just let the computer auto-select the best available players. If you want to stay competitive all season, however, you’ll need to watch your team every week because sometimes players will need to be replaced after they get injured or perform poorly. In any case, don’t let not knowing about players discourage you from participating. 

Draft day is a great time to build or join a community. Some leagues will meet in person and make a draft party of the ordeal. However, some leagues keep the draft strictly online. Either way is still a great way to build rapport with people.

Finally, compete! You’ll face off in head-to-head matchups on a week-to-week basis: your best players against someone else’s. Your objective is to have the team with the most head-to-head wins (i.e., the team that scores the most points in head-to-head matchups) at the end of the regular season. Some leagues play for money, prizes, or even hilarious “punishments” for their last-place finisher. Competition among friends, family members, coworkers, neighbors, etc., is where we learn more about ourselves, others, and football. 

So why spend all this time exploring fantasy football and encouraging Christians to play such a carnal game? As a coach, I have the unique benefit of seeing how competition helps people form bonds and learn things about themselves they didn’t know they had in them. Even the most trivial competitions help people appreciate (at best) or respect (at worst) people they’d never interact with outside of the competition. 

So as a Christian in the Coach’s Box, I see something as trivial as fantasy football as a medium that we can use to open doors to communicate the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I don’t think it has to be as explicit as publicly praying before each draft pick, quoting John 3:16 to your opponent before every head-to-head matchup, or naming your team “TDs4Jesus” (which is a bit problematic in and of itself). But it can open conversations organically at the Holy Spirit’s prompting or develop an empathetic and compassionate heart for humans made just like us in the image of God. 

In a big world with big problems, competition of all kinds—even fantasy football—is a way to make our world smaller. So as we ascend from the dark season of sports, maybe consider joining a league or starting one of your own. Start your research on players and teams. Explore the rules. Build the community you want to be part of.