Why I Quit My Fantasy Football League

The impetus for getting sober, though, wasn't spiritual. It was all about money—or a lack thereof.  

If you are smart enough to avoid the fantasy-verse altogether, or you aren't but also like living in denial, "fantasy" is actually a cute euphemism for "gambling." In my long-running league, called the SMEFFL, for reasons explained below, the stakes had become absurdly high. A tradition of bumping up the entry fee a few bucks after each season eventually led to a buy-in of several hundred dollars. Add the transaction fees for every add/drop, and the cost of running a team in the Smefull was creeping up close a $1,000 dollars per annum. American money.  

Which is awesome when you take home a winner's purse—or even go deep enough in the playoffs to recoup a few hundred of your investment. Last season, though, for the first time in this millennium, my team missed the playoffs and got crushed in the Toilet Bowl—a consolation game that offered none—meaning the take-home was precisely zero.

About then, it occurred to me that that playing in the Smefull, while clearly a social obligation, was not required by any local, state or federal law, nor mentioned in the Ten Commandments. The money spent on fantasy football, I realized, could also be spent on other things. Luxury items, for instance, like rent and food.

Granted, there are leagues with entry fees of $20,000 or more, but nobody in the Smefull is a professional gambler, out for blood. Most of us went to the same high school—Shawnee Mission East—which gave us the very clunky title "Shawnee Mission East Fantasy Football League,"  and the even clunkier acronym SMEFFL. We're all friends. At least, we are all supposed to be friends. As the stakes got higher over the years, things changed. Once the purse got into four figures, camaraderie basically went out the window. The zany, sitcom-style male bonding stopped, and serious bickering began.

Suppose, for instance, your league is free, and the winners get nothing but pride. Also suppose that you happen be at the home of another team owner—let's call him Dave—before the two of you go out to a movie. While Dave is getting ready in another room, you notice that his computer is on. Then you also notice that he foolishly left himself logged on to the league's website—an appalling breach of team security.  Naturally, you decide to teach Dave an important lesson by playfully dropping all of his best players and replacing them with scrubs. Sure, you know the league commissioner will bawl you out. He is the one who will have to fix everything after getting Dave's panicked/enraged 2:00 am phone call. So? You know it will be totally be worth a little yelling to see Dave come home after the movie, check his computer,  and shriek like a little girl at the sight of Jay Cutler starting in place of Peyton Manning. All in good fun.
Throw a few thousand dollars in the mix, however, and maybe everybody doesn't hug-it-out in the end, broheim style. Full-scale, friendship-ending feuds have erupted in fantasy leagues over much, much less. Over nothing, really. Ask any hardcore fantasy player if they've ever lost a friend because of the game. Then just wait for the story.

Like a few seasons back, when the NFL's top tight ends—Tony Gonzalez, Alge Crumpler, and Antonio Gates -- all somehow ended up on my roster. Good for handcuffing rivals. A bummer when there's only room for one of them to start. Just goofing around online, I tried to play all three. For some reason, the website didn't make a distinction between tight end and wide receiver, and let them all become active. Sunday morning, when the rest of the league owners saw what happened, the outcry was instant, ugly and sustained. Weeks of arguments followed. There were endless exchanges of legalistic emails, and hours of angry phone calls that devolved into yelling and obscenities. With one owner—who wasn't even my opponent that fateful Sunday—the fights got so bitter we resolved never to speak again. We didn't for months, either, until the rest of the league cajoled us into making nice.

Being free of all that soul-sapping angst is probably the best part of quitting. That, and not having to worry about my preseason predictions being proved so horribly wrong. Or about needing a player to do well when he's going against the hometown team. Or waking up at 4:30 am every Tuesday to be first on the waiver wire. Or getting those famous, middle-of-the-night phone calls from overserved league-mates offering an "incredibly awesome trade" that turns out to be two guys from his bench for three of your starters.

Having left the league, and fantasy itself behind—having given up geekdom to be a normal football fan, only one step in the recovery process remains. With help from my Higher Power, and taking it one day at a time, my hope is to someday, eventually, pick up a football, go outside, and play.

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Hampton Stevens is a writer based in Kansas City, Missouri. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, ESPN the Magazine, Playboy, Gawker, Maxim, and many more publications.

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