Thursday, September 24, 2009

Sometimes a Funny Team Name Is Just a Funny Team Name

Fantasy football is a waste of time and money. Fantasy football is inconsequential and kind of sad. Fantasy football is a game for middle class White guys who don't have real problems. Your fantasy football team, to anyone else, is uninteresting. It's like describing your dreams. And worst of all, it doesn't even have an accurate name. If this were really a fantasy, I think Mila Kunis would be involved, not a Robert Meachem spot-start.

But tell that to my brain. I actually didn't give work my full attention yesterday because I was too conflicted about a possible Slaton-Palmer-Benson for Turner-Sproles-Carlson-Washington trade. For something that is, in the long run, pretty negligible, the game within a game occupies a lot of this particular man's time and consideration. So fantasy football is a function of culture, sure, but I didn't realize until recently how much it taps into the male psyche, how it converges with and fulfills our brute instincts.

First page of search results. Gorgeous.

Because I'm ahead of the curve when it comes to time-wasting, I've been playing since high school, but the fantasy football tipping point was about five years ago for culture at-large, coincidentally about the same time the early-aughts poker explosion was leveling off. Not coincidentally, the games have similar clientele. Poker became popular because men in their twenties--a generation raised with over-protective parents and participation trophies--realized that the professional world they had just entered wasn't going to hand them anything. Rather than, you know, working hard to achieve things, they found an outlet that would reward them for the decision-making, judgment, and balls so often ignored by their bosses. Finally, they could take these skills and get what they really deserved with very little effort. They could experience tangible rewards for something as patently intangible as intellect.

Fantasy football, which doubles these goals while also being an excuse to watch more sports, requires the same mixture of skill and chance. Whereas the most important parts of poker are solitary though, fantasy football thrives on group interaction while still glorifying the self.

Since fantasy football is a game of prediction and conjecture, no one, including ESPN's Matthew Berry, is an expert. He's just a guy who has more time and spreadsheets to study this stuff, and even then, he's rarely right about it. Or at least that's what we tell ourselves. The reason why he can keep his job is two-fold. If we acknowledge that even an expert is throwing darts, it makes the amount of time we spend on this seem pointless, and the whole enterprise seems more silly, which we don't want. So we allow that his help is useless but seek it out anyway. Also, and here's the part that ties into being a man, it makes us feel smarter if the expert is this fallible. It taps into the "I could do that" arrogance surrounding every man ever. We hate Matthew Berry not because he doesn't do his job well, but because we believe we could do it better.

Would you trust this man with anything other than fantasy sports?

We don't worry too much about this because fantasy football has refreshingly low stakes. Instead of agony, it forces us to deal with the discomfort of defeat. Traditionally, because you only have one opponent per week in fantasy, you always have tantalizing odds of winning and feel as if you've come very close even when you lose. It's like heads-up poker, except you don't need a pokerface.

Finally, what is brilliance if we aren't recognized for it? And what is brilliance if we are secure in that brilliance? We have to second-guess ourselves with systems or matchups, with sleepers and clever replacements for injured stars. We have now upped the ante for what separates those in the know from those in Yahoo public leagues, and that standard isn't even winning. For example, every fantasy player has said something like this in conversation: "I'm in third place right now. The dude in first has Adrian Peterson so..." Of course he's in first; he has the best player. Is that not enough? A female mind would just take the best player and be done with it. A male mind almost has to apologize for not being counter-intuitive. Another example of this nay-saying is the fact that every league has had an argument about its scoring, ignoring the fact that those values are as arbitrary as anything else in the game. As long as everyone is playing by the same rules, even if those rules are "one hundred and eleven point bonus for any first down play," your league is fair.

When I started playing in high school, the more research you did before your draft, the better your team was. Now that almost hurts you because you key into players and second-guess the obvious value picks. In one of my leagues the guys in the number one and number two spots on the leaderboard used auto-draft. Like everything else with guys and fantasy football, I don't think that's a coincidence.

At once, fantasy football presents man at his best and his worst. Always striving, never achieving. Always independent, never alone. Always strong but crippled by self-doubt. And even though the NFL is experiencing a golden age, something tells me this isn't the last of the games we'll play to express ourselves.

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