(Editor's note: Some names have been changed to protect the innocent. Also, some facts have been changed to make the stories more interesting. )
If you don't play fantasy football, FX's sitcom The League must seem absurd.
Week after week, the show's main characters, ostensibly best friends, do
horrible things to each other for the sake of victory in their fantasy league.
They lie, cheat, swindle and steal—with no trick too dirty, no cruelty too
cruel. Everything else in life—family, relationships, career—comes a
distant second to winning their league.
In other words, the guys are amateurs.
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For the first time since George Bush was president—the older George Bush—yours truly is experiencing life without fantasy football. After months of public agonizing, I decided to leave my own version of "The League." Sixteen of the most mega-competitive fantasy dorks you could ever find, most of us have known each other since high school, and the league has played a big part in keeping us connected. With a sort of mini-reunion every year for draft weekend, and the ceaseless flow of (mostly insulting) email, text, and phone calls during the season, fantasy football has played a huge role in helping us stay friends. Like a pair of Traveling Pants, but for dudes.
The idea of severing those connections was scary enough, but there was another, much more daunting challenge to face. Like any junkie, I simply didn't know how to live sober. My entire adult life, there had never been a time when I hadn't played in at least one fantasy league, and often two or three at a time. Fantasy was simply part of life. The rites and rituals as inexorably bound to the autumn as the shorter days, changing leaves, and blessed game of football itself. If I'm not going to be the guy who spends all weekend obsessing over the weather in Buffalo because Lee Evans can't go deep if there's too much wind—who was I going to be? Could I live without fantasy? For that matter, was it even worth trying?
That, of course, was the addiction talking. Years of abusing my drug of choice—a massive daily dose of NFL trivia—were taking a serious toll. All that data, so hyper-specialized it's useless in any other context, was using so much memory that there wasn't room left in my brain for anything else—like birthdays, anniversaries or doctor's appointments. Or my own phone number. There certainly was no room for even a semblance of broader cultural literary. Ask the average bunch of fantasy geeks to name the capital of Ethiopia, or who fought in the War of 1812, and you'll most likely get shrugs and mumbles. Should you wonder, however, where BenJarvus Green-Ellis played his college ball, or many left-footed kickers are currently on NFL rosters, we've got you covered.
As it turned out, and with apologies for an irresistible pun, kicking the fantasy football habit has been enormously rewarding. Sure, going cold turkey was tough. That first NFL weekend was especially hard. Watching games at my dad's house, I'd twitch every time a new score crawled across the screen—reaching for my cellphone to check my team before remembering that I didn't have one.
Sadly, just a few weeks later, there was even a full-blown relapse. A friend who didn't know I was trying to quit the game innocently called to ask my opinion. She wanted to know whether to start Joe Flacco or Sam Bradford. Bradford was my pick—and that was enough to set me off. The next three hours, watching an otherwise terrifically dull St. Louis team, Sam Bradford took me on an emotional roller coaster. His every completion was a thrill, his every incomplete pass an outrage. A touchdown pass in the second half literally made me jump for joy. All of this, keep in mind, was without having the slightest financial stake in the outcome. When dad asked how come I cared so much about a Rams' game, the truth was too shameful to confess. So I lied and told him I bet the spread. Pathetic, isn't it? All that time and energy wasted rooting for someone else's player. A whole afternoon spent, if you think about it, having a fantasy football fantasy.
That's just plain weird.
Of course, anyone in recovery has to take things slowly, but leaving the league has already proven to be an incredibly rewarding choice. With the demands of team ownership gone, the bonds of addiction broken, watching football doesn't feel like work anymore. These past several weeks have been a time of great spiritual renewal, a rediscovery of my love for the game—the real game, the one played on a field. Like a rebaptism, my faith in the church of football has been reborn. Praise Goodell and pass the remote control. For the first time in years, NFL Sundays are fun again.