I don’t get fantasy football.
Now, I generally understand the draw of the enterprise for so many millions. (Like Lady Gaga, whether or not you enjoy the phenomenon, it’s large enough that you better pay attention.) I’ve been at a blackjack table, and I’ve bet on horses in the Kentucky Derby. There’s a thrill to “being in the game” that’s hard to match, even if your vantage point is a bar stool. But I can’t grasp the attraction of splitting my rooting interest in any number of directions, with the primary goal of appearing more clever for having chosen those disparate interests.
On the playgrounds where I grew up, kids were ripped apart for waffling on their favorite team. (I did some of the ripping.) The quickest ticket to exile from the Island of True Fans were the words, “But my second-favorite team is ... .” Even as a child, I was all-in when it came to the teams I cheered, be it baseball season, football season, or those exotic glimpses of professional hockey (the Atlanta Flames!) I caught, courtesy of Ted Turner’s super-station. The idea of cheering a quarterback wearing different colors than my team of choice was as foreign to my way of fandom as would be a Batman-Joker crime-fighting partnership. “Team first!” was the battle cry.
But now in the realm of fantasy football, the Joker and Batman can be fast friends, with no collateral damage to “real-world” football as we view the standings on Monday morning. Somewhere, there’s a Tennessee Titan fan — probably a season-ticket holder — who “owns” Eli Manning for his (or her) fantasy team. On September 25th, that fan had to be giddy over his team’s real-world victory over the Giants, an easier-than-expected 29-10 road win. But then, Peyton’s kid brother threw a pair of interceptions with nary a touchdown pass against the Titans. This couldn’t help the fan’s fantasy score, could it? (Well, Eli did pass for 386 yards, so all was not lost. A real-world win, a fantasy wash, at worst.) But what if Manning had led the Giants to victory that Sunday? How does our Titan fan go to bed that night? A better-looking score for his fantasy league ... and one game less likely to see a playoff team in a stadium he can actually visit.
I don’t mean to beat up on the Titans, but let’s consider Chris Johnson’s 2009 season. Tennessee’s star tailback became just the sixth man in NFL history to rush for 2,000 yards in a season. Add the 16 touchdowns Johnson scored, and he had to be a fantasy gold mine for “owners” savvy enough to have “drafted” him before the season began. Back in real-world football, though, Johnson’s exploits were good enough to earn his team an 8-8 record, mediocrity defined. Fantasy football, it turns out, is just that.
When I was in sixth grade, I decided a way I could fully engage in every Major League Baseball game or NFL contest would be to rank every team — 26 baseball clubs at the time, 28 football — in order of my personal preference. I’d then have a rooting interest whether it was the St. Louis Cardinals against the Chicago Cubs, or the Cleveland Indians against the Seattle Mariners. When I showed the rankings to my dad, he laughed. Out loud. It’s the only time I can remember my father laughing at something I took seriously. He was wise enough to explain the wasted energy of creating an emotional connection where it didn’t already exist. Passion steers us enough over the course of our lives without having to be injected into a game between one’s 14th- and 22nd-ranked football teams.
When I have my journalist’s hat on, it’s a challenge to be objective — dispassionate, neutral — at an event where thousands of other people are cheering one team or the other. Sports are more about what our hearts tell us than any message our brain might try and get across. Fantasy football requires a fan to go the opposite extreme from “no cheering in the press box.” In fantasy football, you’re expected to cheer every game, or more precisely, every player in every game who might stand to gain you points, and another step toward a fantasy championship.
Whether it’s “old-school” or anachronistic, I remain a team-first guy. (In modern parlance, “It’s the name on the front of the jersey.”) Jerry Seinfeld would surely scoff at my choosing a certain color of laundry over another. But being all-in has its virtues. The only points I add up at game’s end are those on the scoreboard. And when my team of choice happens to have more than its opponent ... well, it feels real.