(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.
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.