We were sharing a cab to Chicago’s O’Hare airport when my colleague disclosed her painful secret – she had joined a Fantasy Football League (FFL) and she was out of control. As a steady handed, pragmatic attorney, I had not pegged her as someone prone to bi-polar swings of allegiance and bizarre social networking normally encountered in advanced fantasy competitors. Yet, she was rapidly exhibiting classic FFL symptoms as she lamented her inability to watch football as a “normal person”. We were having a rare FFL 12 Step moment.
I shivered recalling my own Southern California winter Sundays when the beach beckoned or friends called for tennis. I let the phone ring – – glued like a trailer park crack addict hopped up on statistics, lurking in my darkness at noon. Fantasy Football was no longer about winning a paltry $500 purse for possessing the season’s best record; it was about claiming the intellectual high ground and lording it over my closest friends and colleagues. It was about life – dealing with competition, unfair advantages, inside information and a universe dominated by the talented, overpaid and narcissistic superstars– sort of like investment banking. And as often the way of finance, results often defy the most meticulous preparations.
My colleague confided how Fantasy mayhem had taken hold of her life. “I am a mess. I read five papers and watch ESPN until all hours of the morning. I purchased the NFL network on cable.” She was shaking like a Hunt’s Point heroin addict. Everyone is affected – my family and all the in-laws. We all have teams. I have become an obnoxious trash talker. I actually sent a text swearing at my mother the other day when her defense returned an interception for a pick six. I used to be a Seahawks fan. Now I could care less if Seattle wins – especially since they traded my one player, Deion Branch, to the Patriots. If the ‘Hawks are playing the Bears, I want Matt Forte, the Bears running back, to score a TD. I read injury reports more than I do legal briefs. “
As I listened to her share, I felt that familiar nicotine craving for Fantasy Football as if I had just completed my last line up. In a sick twist, I chose to enable her addiction by sharing some recent private insights I had gleaned while in Foxboro. “So does anyone have Hernandez, the Pats’ rookie receiver?” I asked. She made a face. “Hernandez?” “Oh yeah,” I smiled slyly. “He’s 6’2”, fast and the youngest player in the NFL. I recently got the chance to hear a chalk talk at Gillette Stadium. Pats QB coach Bill O’Brien shared that the rookie end would be figuring much more prominently in their offense.”
A scheming shadow fell across her face. “I don’t think anyone has him.” She checked her IPhone and swooned deviously, “Ooooh, no one has taken him yet. “ She moved her thumbs – swiping sideways and punching the virtual keyboard. In a matter of seconds she looked up with a satisfied smile as if she had just completed an inside trade. “Done! That’s going to really piss off my brother in law. We play this week.”
As a recovering FFL addict, I had travelled this lonesome, dispirited road. She was suffering from the magnificent obsession – – a midnight owl trapped in a parliament that feeds on statistics. These lost souls comb over Sporting News, ESPN, and a range of other social media trying to string together a psycho-physical profile of every player. In their alienated delusion, everyone around them seems parochial in their understanding of football. At my own low point, my wife entered my den to see a confused collage of newspapers plastered all over the walls like John Nash, the schizophrenic in “A Beautiful Mind.”
At the waning days of my disease, I had isolated myself from old FFL friends- – choosing instead to join obscure computer commissioned leagues pitting me against anonymous Mensa data jocks that probably worked nights in the bowels of Cal Tech or a Tampa Bay Best Buy fulfillment center. It was a dark time where I combed the gridiron for the slightest insight that might mean an advantage. I was a beady eyed Vegas bookie leering out from underneath my rock.
For most recreational FFL users, a fantasy team can be exciting and fun. Your goal is simple – select a team of individual players and then spend every waking moment attempting to throttle your opponents by outscoring them. While you must select a team defense which can deduct points from your score, fantasy football is about offensive performance – passes caught, TDs scored, and field goals successfully made. The key to fantasy management is a constant stream of real time information and perpetual engagement – which sometimes means that you forget anniversaries, neglect to pick up a child from a playdate or go to bed.
The Fantasy season is often determined by your pre-season “draft”. Prior to your FFL season, teams gather in late August to draft their squads in a debauched and highly anticipated event not unlike the famous two week Teton gatherings of Mountain Men in the early 1900s. The draft is a time for bravado, verbal abuse and larceny. Teams with names like Madden’s Maulers and Jones Beach Bullies arrive with stacks of excel spreadsheets and perhaps even medical records. With the advent of the internet, FFL has gotten completely out of control. Trouble starts when one begins to overanalyze the firehose of public data. An overzealous owner may choose to follow tweets from Chad Ochocinco’s cousin “3Paks” in hopes of divining some nugget of insight into the highly talented but mercurial receiver’s frame of mind. The fact that he cannot even understand a single 3Paks 12 character tweet is yet another blind alley on a perilous journey of frustration.
FFL data jockeys are generally the same individuals who show up with excel spreadsheets the size of War & Peace for your local fourth grade youth baseball draft. These men and women mean business and often combine to create formidable and amusing opponents. There is a personality pattern with most teams – each their own odd couple of dedicated, anal retentive statistics freaks and lazy, ne’er do well armchair quarterbacks who make rash decisions based on the most recent conversation they had about Colt McCoy with a Somali cab driver in Cleveland.
FFL skill is based on predicting how individual players are positioned to perform in any given week. A strong QB playing a team with a brilliant defensive secondary may not get the start one week in favor of a less statistically impressive “back-up” QB who is facing a team that is ranked 26th in pass defense. It is all about match-ups, health status, game conditions, and the critical wild card events that conspire to make sports and betting so unpredictable.
FFL also creates bizarre and contradictory matchups that permanently corrupt your ability to watch football as a normal fan. Perhaps you are a Giants fan and select Eli Manning as your team QB. Your receivers might by Boldin for Baltimore and the previously loathed Desean Jackson of the Eagles. You hate the Eagles (or used to) but you now like it when Jackson scores. This week’s game, your opponent is starting Brandon Jacobs, also of the Giants, at running back. A normal fan watches the entire game rooting for Eli and Brandon and cheers when the Giants score. Not you! In your twisted FFL mania, Eli might pass 85 yards to Manningham, who runs the ball to the 2 yard line. You are happy Eli completed the pass but you are angry because now you know there is a strong chance Eli will hand the ball to Brandon Jacobs who will score a TD. To your chagrin, Jacobs plows the ball across the goal line and voila, your opponent has just scored on you. Your iPhone immediately glows with a taunting text message from your opponent and you curse out loud at the television. Your wife looks at you in amazement. “I thought you liked the Giants?” You try to explain the dysfunctional world in which you are now marooned but it is too complicated. “Oh, forget it…” you sigh in disgust.
Throughout the season, teams trade players, pick up undrafted players and dump underperformers – always looking to exploit inside information and embarrass one’s opponent. Given that only one team can possess New England’s QB Tom Brady, Raider RB Darren McFadden, Charger TE Antonio Gates or Bear kicker Robbie Gould, much of one’s success is determined in how one picks lesser known players. You must do your research or risk being mocked. It is not uncommon for at least one neophyte FFL owner to come unprepared to a pre-season draft and select a seemingly great player that has gone undrafted through the first round. The rookie owner can’t believe their luck. These idiots he is competing with will never beat him if they are missing such obvious talents. After declaring his game changing pick of ProBowl Jones, he is stunned to learn that ProBowl is making license plates in Joliette for attempting to sell a rocket launcher to an undercover FBI agent. He may be picking up trash around Soldier Field but he won’t be playing on it. No mercy.
The season carries right up to the playoffs when a winning team is declared. After that season’s king or queen of football trivia have been crowned, a disturbing mid-winter doldrums sets in. Due to low winter light and the lack of a continuing weekly enterprise, the FFL owner’s brain becomes starved of the dopamine and serotonin that was being manufactured in such large quantities during the regular season. January is indeed a dark post partum period where some fantasy leagues may develop sick, twisted transitional versions of competition turning to less conventional sports like golf, basketball and hockey. The fact is you can set up a fantasy league on just about anything – – celebrities, world leaders and sixth grade math classes. If you have access to information, there is a league waiting to be spawned.
Some FFL purists might argue that the notion of a Fantasy League for Reality Stars crosses some important line. But hey, it may kill some time while you are waiting ProBowl Jones to get out on parole.