For the past two years, I have participated in a low-stakes (fifty dollar buy-in) fantasy football league with a group of nine friends. This year, having moved out of town, I was unable to attend the draft, and I had to bow out of the season’s competition. Part of me was disappointed that I wouldn’t get to share the experience with my friends. The ups and downs. The trash talk. A far greater part of me, however, thanked God, Muhammad, Buddha, and Baby Jesus that I didn’t have to play.
On the surface, fantasy football seems to combine two things that I love: Math and sports. While I am facially very nerdy, I enjoy athletics more than comic books (though not quite as much as grammar). I like to pore over a stat sheet, and as a kid I would keep track of league leaders in several statistical categories every morning before leaving for school. Fantasy football and I seemed to be a match made in dork heaven.
In reality, though, it was a nightmare. As much as it allowed me to delve into two of my passions, my fantasy league exposed many of the things I don’t like about myself. My fantasy teams (“The Fighting Jews” one year and “Team Teamwork” the next) held a mirror up to my life, and I did not like the high-definition look at my own flaws. My experience as a fantasy baseball owner led me to question the very nature of my own existence.
The most basic problem I have with fantasy football is that I am not good at it, and I prefer not to do things I am bad at where my friends and family can see. There are plenty of things I do that I’d hardly consider myself world-class at: Crossword puzzles, shaving, sexual intercourse. But I get to do those in the relative privacy of my home, and I don’t have to show anyone the results until I’m satisfied with them.
My fantasy failures showed up weekly in plain sight of all of my friends. When running back Michael Turner sputtered for the fourth straight week, everyone silently judged my choice to draft him in an early round despite his history of injury. How could I have been so naïve, my league-mates must have wondered. Each week, a litany of my bad decisions appeared in great detail on the internet, where it would remain forever, like the maddening spot that Lady Macbeth could never wash clean. But why did the opinions of others matter so much to me? What determines the true value of a fantasy franchise? Why did I let an arbitrary group of professional football players define my self-worth? Those were the real questions.
And while I like to consider myself a fairly “together” person, playing fantasy sports revealed my staggering inattention to detail. I would receive weekly text messages from irritated friends reading: “You know you haven’t changed your players, and games start in five minutes, right?” Maintaining a fantasy roster required a maximum of ten minutes per week, and I put it off time and time again, often to the point where my scores suffered on account of my neglect. Our commissioner (yes, a fantasy league has a commissioner) considered implementing a “deadbeat dad” fine for team owners who failed to manage their rosters responsibly. I was the one who inspired the idea. I repeatedly ignored my obligations to the detriment of no one but myself. The subtle self-destruction gnawed at me.
The strangest, thing, though, is that even on the weeks I did adequately attend to my roster, I felt wildly out of control. In a competition, I prefer to win or lose on my own merits. If I lose at football, I want it to be because I am out of shape and uncoordinated, not because Visanthe Shiancoe underachieved once again. The control freak in me couldn’t trust my players to win, and I cursed them up and down after each loss (and my losses were numerous). At the root of the problem, I had drafted a weak team. It was my fault. Why couldn’t I just accept that? Why did I act each week like I was subject to forces outside my own control? Does this mean I am unfit for human relationships? Will I die alone? Am I capable of love and trust? These were things I thought as Santonio Holmes dropped another Ben Roethlisberger pass.
Finally, I learned from my two seasons as a fantasy owner that my knowledge of sports was not as deep as I had imagined. As a guy who has little mechanical aptitude and even less visible musculature, I tie a lot of my traditional “masculine” identity and pride to my knowledge of sports. My fantasy ownership shook my image of myself as a man. Each year I lost out on impact players because I had no idea who the up-and-comers in the NFL might be. Before each draft, I tried to prepare myself on ESPN.com while thinking things like: “Is Marshall Faulk going to be an all-star this year, or did he retire in 2004?” I felt like less of a man and less of a nerd. That’s a one-two punch of self-doubt that only fantasy sports can provide.
What started off as a low-risk lark with a bunch of pals ended up causing me unexpected hours of existential angst. I questioned my masculinity, my work ethic, and my humanity. I became too competitive and failed to own up to my shortcomings. The thought of drafting my team this year was almost too much to bear. There was no joy in this work for me. The word “fantasy” was a misnomer and could have been more accurately re-named “The Crushing Reality of All Your Deepest Insecurities Laid Bare” Football League.