Columns, Sports

McCoy ’14: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

By
Sports Columnist

There are websites devoted to it, books written about it, ironic T-shirts depicting it and even a mainstream sitcom centered around it. Individuals young and old all over the country place bets on it, lose productivity over it and cry about it. Fantasy football has a stranglehold on football culture in America and has grown into a monstrous beast both engrossing and lucrative. But is it good for football and those who love it?

I’ve been a fantasy football die-hard for eight years running now. I started off out of boredom, in public leagues on ESPN.com before I coaxed enough of my friends the following autumn to form a league that survives to this day. In high school, fantasy football took up way more of my time than it should have. I spent more time making cheat sheets for drafts than I did on any essay, woke up at 10 every Sunday morning to watch two hours of “Fantasy Football Today” before setting my lineups and sacrificed one of my Little League trophies to shoddily make a Frankenstein championship trophy for my league (which still resides in my bedroom).

I’ve accumulated leagues over the years from various social circles and can never say no when asked to renew every year. So I am now a member of five different leagues: some with good friends, some with mostly strangers, some with childhood friends’ moms. (I only wish I were kidding.) None of them have money on the line — only pride and bragging rights. You may find five leagues excessive, perhaps impressive or most likely pathetic.

But I’m not alone. There are millions out there like me — many of whom render me a novice by juxtaposition — who spend every Sunday with ESPN Gamecasts open on six tabs, hate running backs by committee and complain about the owner who forgets he has a team by Week Four. Fantasy football allows the armchair GM’s of the universe to assert their agency and gain control over something involving the sport they love. It has all the drama that real life sports have — underdogs, heroes, frustration and joy. In short, it’s everything you could ask for in a hobby. It really is no great surprise that over 35 million Americans, or 11 percent of the population, are playing in 2013.

I love fantasy football, and I find it only slightly depressing to say my autumn would be less enjoyable without it (and this is coming from a person who loves foliage more than you love your own mother). But I’m not sure fantasy football is an all around good thing for the football fan.

Fantasy football skews the fan’s view of the game. Though the NFL loves how lucrative the business is — an estimated $1 billion industry — it leads to a fan base, myself included, that at times will follow the league in all the wrong ways.

As proven in books like Moneyball and Soccernomics, statistics in sports are invaluable. Stats are, of course, at the heart of fantasy football — yards gained, touchdowns scored, turnovers lost, etc. all determine the scores and winners. But while stats offer analytical insight into the game, in fantasy football they are used simply as metrics that fail to tell the story of a particular player, game or season. Fantasy owners are drawn into prioritizing the numbers, paying more attention to box scores than to how games unfold. In a game in which they have no dogs in the fight, the fantasy-playing layman takes an interest only in his players on the stat sheet.

And stats can be misleading. A quarterback may play a mediocre first half in which his team falls far behind, only to rack up yards and a few touchdown throws in garbage time — when the outcome of the game is determined and the numbers are meaningless. This player may have had a strong fantasy day, appeasing the many fans who started him in their 10-man league, but hardly noticed or cared that his team got walloped due in part to his poor play when it mattered. In this way, fantasy football can easily distort a game for those who selectively choose what they want to pay attention to.

Fantasy football can have a detrimental effect on watching live games, as well. I have on many occasions tuned into a game only to find myself distracted by the stat ticker at the foot of the screen. When a team with a player of mine has the ball, I’m not concerned with analyzing how plays unfold or what the coaching strategy might be — I’m watching to see where my flex-play wide receiver has lined up and if the quarterback is looking in his direction. When the ball changes possession, and my players go to the bench, I return to the ticker.

But worst of all, fantasy football can compromise a fan’s allegiance (something I am proud to say I have yet to succomb to). 49ers fans who draft Marshawn Lynch or Patriots fans who draft new Bronco Wes Welker are making the best decisions for their fantasy teams but have to quietly root for their starting players, even if they are on a hated rival. After all, dollars are on the line, and dollars always win out. Additionally, there is the classic conundrum of what to do if one of your fantasy players is facing off against your team. Do you bench him so you can root unabated for your side? Do you hope he has a huge game but little influences the outcome? Do you celebrate his touchdown that bumped your team out of first place but got you into the fantasy playoffs? These are existential questions that true fan allegiance should never even entertain, but are the debates of the fantasy footballer every Sunday — whether he or she like it or not.

Matthew Berry, also known as the Talented Mr. Roto, is the preeminent fantasy guru who posts a weekly “Love/Hate” column on ESPN explaining who he likes and dislikes as fantasy plays that game week. For me, this love/hate relationship in fantasy football applies in more ways than one. I suppose, though, my internal struggle is for naught. Despite its problematic externalities, fantasy football has cast a spell over myself and the entire NFL fan base, from coworkers to frat brothers to book groups. I may one day try to escape, but fantasy is here to stay.