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The risks and rewards of playing fantasy football: Wading through a moral quagmire

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Now that football is here (again), let’s dive into the strange, murky world of fantasy football.

Super Bowl 50 - Carolina Panthers v Denver Broncos Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

It’s a gorgeous Sunday here in New York City on Labor Day weekend. Granted, I haven’t been outside yet, but the sun looks friendly. The wind has not yet picked up. A strange, unconventional storm is bearing down on us, but seems unlikely to drop any rain. The seas may surge, the storm may hover off the eastern seaboard for four or perhaps five days. But, for now, all is calm.

In a few minutes, I’ll head over to a community garden that my wife founded some seven (eight?) years ago. I’ll sit in the sunlight, back against a wall, and maybe finish re-reading “One Hundred Years of Solitude” for the fourth (fifth?) time. The ending is so damn good I’ve been postponing finishing it. The suspense is thick, even though I remember exactly what happens as if the words were tattooed across the innards of my eyelids. After that, at 7pm EST, I’ll take part in my league’s fantasy football draft.

Football season is upon us once more. Last year, I decided to skip it. I mean, not skip it entirely, but, you know, skip most of it. It’s a bloody sport with a high chance of permanent injury for the practitioners, it is spearheaded by a man as seemingly crooked and unsteady as this out of bounds line, and, to boot, my favorite team, the 49ers, had just fired the only coach they’d had in the past decade or so who’d made them relevant. I was not in the footballing spirit, so to speak.

But life goes on.

The air quickens towards fall here on the east coast. Cold air, light jackets. It’s the end of summer, and everyone who was notably absent from the city for the past two months has limped home from the Hamptons or from Montauk or from the Catskills or France or wherever it is wealthy people vacation these days. A fuller city means fuller bars. A colder city means more bars full of people staring at violent sport. More people drafting players whom they will never meet into fantasy leagues, with real money on the line. Never mind that sometimes, in some leagues, actual (not actual money, just pretend actual) price points are assigned to players. Like, oh yeah, I’ll pay $51 fake fantasy dollars in something we are apparently fine calling an “auction” (too soon? Is it ever not gonna be too soon? Yeah... I’m going with too soon) for Adrian Peterson (who, side note, we are apparently over the fact he did this. Important quote from that article: “[Peterson] said he believed he hit the child 10 or 15 times, but he doesn’t ‘ever count how many pops I give my kids.’” Ummmmmm, okay. Shit. Moving on...) so that hopefully that dude will go out on the real-life field and help me win real-life money in a fake-life fantasy league but I guess it’s real because it’s on the internet and also if I win the whole league, I actually get money from my friends because that’s the agreement we’ve all made.

A larger, murkier, more nebulous agreement seems to have been made: Our willingness to just be cool with all that.


SIRIUS XM Radio Celebrity Fantasy Football Draft-Times Square Photo by Mark Von Holden/Getty Images for SIRIUS XM Radio

Fantasy getting in the way of reality is nothing new. We all have dreams and aspirations that seem ill-suited to the demands of the day-to-day. And so as I approach a renewed commitment to actually playing fantasy football—doubling down on doing this draft thing, checking my lineups, taking part in the daily machinations of a league I don’t quite understand or respect anymore—I find myself thinking about the risk vs. the reward.

Risk: I overthink this whole thing yet again (duh).

Reward: I get to kill a few minutes of each day so the crushing onslaught of real life doesn't grasp me in its depression-doom-tentacles and drag me to the bottom of an endless sea of self doubt.

Okay, okay, okay. Let’s back up a little.

Risk: I get lost in the time commitment required to build a successful team.

Reward: I remember that I totally love all the dudes in my league, and we get to shit-talk one another endlessly now, just like before. Something, basically, resembling this:

[[Extremely necessary disclaimer, because, duh, it’s The League: NSFW CONTENT]]

Risk: Once basketball season rolls around, I completely lose interest in the NFL and by extension my fantasy team again because, duh, the NBA is awesome and stupid football can’t hold a candle to it.

Reward: Actually, this one is its own reward. Hot damn, I can’t wait to see Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson play on the same team. That is just stupid and reminiscent of something a delusional, basketball-crazed eight-year-old would dream.

Risk: My fantasy football team will suck.

Reward: This is most definitely going to happen, so I’m just preparing for it ahead of time.

Risk: I get sucked into AMERICA, IF YOU DON’T LIKE IT, GET OUT and all that goes with it.

Reward: I get to partake in a large part of the conversation currently happening in America.


Divisional Round - Pittsburgh Steelers v Denver Broncos Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

We are at a strange, uncertain crossroads in the history of both our country and our country’s most popular sport. In football, the size of the players and the speed with which they play (read: loads of HGH) has finally caught up to the game. I’m legitimately afraid that someone is going to die on the field. Someone is going to take a hit, suffer a horrific injury, and become the accidental, unwanted face of reform. I sincerely hope this doesn't happen, but until the NFL gets serious about HGH and steroid testing, these guys are just going to get bigger, stronger, and more lethal.

The popularity of such a violent sport should come as no surprise to any well-read, active participant in American culture and history. I mean, hell, we are the same nation that, in the course of a few short years, killed somewhere between 25 million and 30 million bison for sport. Or for their skins. Our short, unbelievably brief history is littered with acts of unimaginable violence and depredation. So, it is no surprise that football doubles as our personal, national bloodsport. Basketball, for example, is huge throughout the rest of the world. The other football, soccer, is even huger. Baseball is played with gusto throughout every corner of the globe. As are other sports such as hockey, rugby, and cricket.

But football... Football is quintessentially American. Yeah, sure, they kind of play it in Canada sometimes. And, yeah, people have recently written articles with titles like, “How American football is becoming a worldwide sport,” but let me ask you this: Did you see any American football at the Olympics?

Football is American in the same way John Wayne is American. Or Bruce Willis. Or Chuck Norris’ chin.

Side note: Bruce Willis was born in Germany. Dammit.

But, you get the point.

And so, as an American, it feels sort of necessary to take part in football. Feels necessary to join a fantasy league. Feels necessary to crack a beer at an unusual hour in the morning and eat nachos and sit on a couch and yell at the screen and hope your favorite team does well. Or, hope your fantasy player—he of the auction and the draft and the price tag—scores a touchdown so that your fake-team on the internet scores fake points for potential, real money. The beast consumes itself. It is impossible to completely step aside from its onward progression.

As we approach a new term—a new president (one way or another), a new season, a new concept of “The American” in a global sense—we must once again reconsider those things that make up the bedrock of our society. Free speech. Freedom to question authority. Freedom to take a stand. Freedom to cultivate a gut like a Japanese rock garden. Freedom to drink crap beer and argue about sports.

Freedom to draft a fantasy team, even if it feels a little weird.

Freedom to write an overly long article trying to get to the bottom of an endless well.

Anyways, wish me luck in tonight’s draft.