Living in a Fantasy World And Its All Good

Marshawn Lynch | Seattle Seahawks
Marshawn Lynch | Seattle Seahawks (Photo credit: Football Schedule)

I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells.  Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living, it’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope.  Which is what I do, and that enables you to laugh at life’s realities.

~ Dr. Seuss

The cell phone vibrated against my leg as I sat watching ushers move down the center aisle of the sanctuary carrying plates for its tithes and offerings.  It was communion Sunday – a service that often had a life of its own slipping past the expected time of dismissal.  I was restless as I saw the LED light flashing through my thin wool slacks.  If I could just glance at the…

A “don’t even think about it” Puritan laser penetrated my temple as I shifted ever so slightly away from my disapproving spouse to see if I could work my phone up to the top of my pocket.  I was in the last seat of the aisle with a perfect defilade from everyone except my partner who was determined to save me from damnation – and winning my game this week.

I had travelled all week and had been unable to complete my fantasy football roster.  I was waiting for text updates on certain injured players – attempting to gain any insights from the NFL hot stove of experts who would recommend a starter.  One of my running backs had suffered a concussion the previous week and I was desperate to find out if he had passed his cognitive readiness tests.  I was undecided between two receivers and was trying to find out if a certain all-Pro corner would be returning from injured reserve to defend one of my two wide-outs.  Earlier in the week I had begun following two of my players on Twitter hoping I might decipher their castrated missives to divine whether they were going to start.

It is called Fantasy Football because those who play it live in a parallel reality. At times, I prefer this reality to my real one.  To enable my addiction, the NFL launched Red Zone, a single station airing only seven hours a week on Sundays — dedicated to tracking every score across fourteen games. On any given Sunday, a total of 60 touchdowns might be faithfully recorded and shared with viewers while a masthead of Fantasy Football statistics by position and player streams live across the base of one’s television.  Just thinking about it makes me shiver with delight.

Each week, my fellow owners and I drown ourselves in statistical minutiae seeking any advantage the way a stock analyst might rummage through the footnotes of a 10-Q filing. If a player is a rookie, they want to know how fast he completed the three cone drill during the combine? What was his vertical leap?  How fast did he run the 20 yard shuttle?

Part of FFL addiction is bragging rights.  In a time of political correctness, we are less courageous at home or at the office and less inclined to dish insults or speak our minds.  Men need outlets.  Each week, I look forward to abusing my fellow owners for their missteps that may lead them to start an injured player or not understand the historical significance of how travel and time zones effect west coast teams that travel east to play away games.

When a fellow owner’s player is arrested in a pink ballerina outfit, driving the wrong way on an interstate in a car loaded with cans of Red Bull stolen from a Green Bay convenience store, it compels me to write my fellow owner a note of condolence. I’m sure he is feeling disappointed in his player and like a parent, only wants what’s best for his 22-year-old wide receiver making $22M.  The fact that the player brought to the NFL a rap sheet longer than Eminem, and was acquitted for manslaughter while in pre-school is of no concern. Can he score touchdowns?

A recent NYT op-ed by CD Carter complained that Fantasy Leagues dehumanize players – essentially turning them into cattle to be bought and sold without regard for them as people.  The author was deeply concerned. “Instead of a young running back on the verge of a contract that would mean financial security for his family, we see glistening yards per carry.  Instead of an aging quarterback making one last run at glory, we see completion percentages and red zone efficiency.”

Uhhh, yeah. I think he just summed up the entire universe of real franchise owners.  If you think my lens is a tad jaundiced to the dehumanizing world of professional sports, try looking at players through the eyes of the media, owners hungry for a return on multi-million dollar contracts and coaches whose livelihoods depend on those dehumanizing factoids like completion percentages on third downs, yards after catch and a young man’s probability to avoid arrest for making sexual advances toward beer cart girls at off-season golf tournaments.  Alas, there is no room for delicate sensibilities in either the real or imagined NFL. It’s brutal, degrading and dehumanizing — and then there is a bad side.

I realize some Fantasy Leagues can get really out of hand.  One could argue the credit default market was essentially an unregulated financial fantasy league where buyers and sellers were promising to indemnify one another based on whether a third-party debt holder paid or defaulted on loans.  That fantasy league turned out to have no commissioner and be all too real – ending with taxpayers, Lehman and the stock market taking a helmet to helmet hit on the chin.

Other fantasy leagues can get downright bizarre.  Consider – the too close for comfort fantasy league where you get points if your celebrity dies during that particular year. You pick 25 celebrities and get points based on a system that subtracts the dead celeb’s age from 150. Obviously, your portfolio must include a few sure bets like Betty White but you get more points if a dark horse celeb like Miley Cyrus or Lindsay Lohan choose to steer their Bentley into a telephone pole.  Yes, it’s sick but hey, that’s why I like it.  It is Schadenfreude on steroids.  It’s not enough to revel in other’s misfortune or death, you want to profit by it.  Wait, that’s what the insurance industry is for…

Sometimes you need to retreat into a world of fantasy.  If medicating your difficult day with M&Ms and Manhattans does not move the needle, it may require disappearing into a parallel universe where you can manage a stable of warriors and win fame with shrewd trades and cunning insights.  You can be king or queen for a day and the master and commander of your private cabal of friends.  In my case, it’s an eight man, breakfast club that convenes most weekends to commiserate and compare notes on life, sports and trends that make life worth living – like friends and Fantasy Football.

So I’m back in church and I am still distracted.  Who should I start, Andre Johnson or Josh Gordon.  Maybe I’ll sit Gordon and put in Chris Ivory as my flex player. What to do? I need a burning bush.  Actually, I wish had Reggie Bush but someone else got him.

My minister reads a piece on world mission and discusses the riches of ancient times. Gold, silver, ivory…

Did he say, “Ivory”?

It’s a sign.  I reach for my phone to add Chris Ivory of the Jets.  My wife frowns and whispers.

“Put that away, right now.”

“I have to submit my line…”

She has a black belt in emasculating looks of disapproval. I roll my eyes and abandon the phone. I know better than to take on my commissioner.

After the service, my minister greets us.  Knowing his passion for the Chicago Bears and the memory of my wife’s lingering disdain, I confessed my act of spiritual insubordination. He smiled and leaned in, “Go with Josh Gordon.  Schaub is playing terrible and can’t throw the ball to Johnson.  Besides Cleveland is up against Atlanta and they rank last against the pass. Both corners are injured.”

I pursed my lips and raised my eyebrows in approval.  I knew I liked this guy. As I walked out to the Common Room. I heard him call behind me.

“But remember, God is a Bears fan.”

Her Magnificent Obsession

Gaps and holes in American football. (See Amer...
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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.