The Super Bowl of the Mind

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It’s no secret that I don’t follow sports. Sports don’t follow me, either. We have little to say to each other. Nonetheless, as a student of human nature and a person always eager to find new things to make jokes about, I was receptive when a friend asked if I wanted to participate in a fantasy football league. His assurance that I would not be obligated to watch any actual football was the selling point.

What is fantasy football? First, two things it is not. It is not a sport played by elves and hobbits and other fantasy creatures, as amazing as that would be. Fantasy football is also not where you sit around fantasizing about football all the time, because that would be weird. No, fantasy football is where you sit around fantasizing about football all the time — but so do your friends, and whoever does the best job of fantasizing wins.

Fantasy football is an outgrowth of many sports fans’ ardent belief that they would be better at coaching a team than any of the actual coaches. (If I knew enough about football, I would make a joke here about how that might actually be true in the case of Coach So-and-So. But I don’t, so go ahead and finish that joke yourself.) What you do is, you compile an imaginary team of your own from the ranks of the current real players, then award yourself points based on how those players perform in their weekly games. You get points when your guys score points, obviously, as well as when they accomplish other tasks: throwing a touchdown pass, recovering a fumble, “sacking” somebody (whatever that is), signing an endorsement deal, etc. The other people in your pretend league do the same, and whoever gets the most points is named King of Pretend Things.

You may ask why all of this is necessary. Is there not enough pleasure in watching football already, without having to contrive situations to make it more interesting? The answer is no, there is not. Men have gotten to the point where they feel compelled to watch football even though they no longer enjoy it. They resort to fantasy football leagues to rekindle the spark, to give themselves a vested interest in the games’ outcome and thereby force themselves to care about what happens. They are like the junkie who can neither give up heroin nor find satisfaction in it and must therefore shoot up in a public place, with the risk of getting caught, just to feel something, anything.

The fantasy season begins the same way as the real season: with the announcement that Brett Favre is returning for one more year. No, I kid, it begins with a draft. The draft is very serious business, as I learned when I joined my fellow imaginary league members one night at the end of August to conduct it. ESPN, the arbiter of all sports both real and fictional, has an elaborate system on its website to help you do your fantasy thing, and ESPN’s oracles had produced a list of all the current players, ranked according to desirability based on analysis of factors like past performance, current health, and pending court dates. When it is your turn to choose a player for your pretend team, if you’re not sure what to do, you can just take the highest-ranked guy still available. You know — if you’re LAZY.

Most people used ESPN’s rankings as a guide but ultimately preferred to rely on their own strategies, reasoning that they’re probably at least as good at predicting the future as ESPN is. My system went like this. When it was my turn to choose a player, I would look at the name at the top of ESPN’s list, and ask myself the following:

– Have I heard of this person?

If the answer was yes, I would draft him. If the answer was no, I skipped him and continued down the list until I found a name I recognized. The problem with this system, I soon discovered, was that most of the players famous enough for me to have heard of them (i.e., they’ve hosted “Saturday Night Live” or been accused of rape) are quarterbacks, and you can’t have a team of nothing but quarterbacks. So I switched to my back-up system of choosing the top-ranked player who had a funny name.

This was a treasure trove. Look at the hilarious names I got! Chad Ochocinco! Knowshon Moreno! Santonio Holmes! Marshawn Lynch! Marcedes Lewis! LaDainian Tomlinson! Plaxico Burress! Davone Bess! Montario Hardesty! Aren’t those fantastic?? If you made up those names for fictional characters in a movie about football, people would accuse you of being racist!

team

The other league members were far more serious in their draft selections, as befits the serious nature of the endeavor. They chattered zealously about the players’ assets and liabilities, growing louder and louder as they tried to convince everyone that their guesses were more accurate than everyone else’s. They were talking about football games that hadn’t been played yet, so it would have been ridiculous for the conversation to turn heated or angry, and I was pleased that it did not. In fact, everyone was quite happy, possibly more excited than they ever are while actually watching football (which, as noted, has become an act of drudgery). However, a passerby who happened to witness the scene would have been forgiven for thinking it was about to turn into a brawl, given the high-decibel fervor on display. For my part, I felt like Jane Goodall.

One of the things my friends had to take into account that didn’t apply to me, and which couldn’t be factored into ESPN’s ranking system, was that they didn’t want to draft anyone whose real-life team they didn’t like. For example, I heard someone reject a high-ranked player because he hates watching the 49ers. Fearing I had missed something, I said, “But just because someone’s on your team doesn’t mean you have to watch their games, right?” This was met with incredulity. No, you don’t HAVE to watch their games, but of course you’ll WANT to, because you’ll want to root for your players. I started to say that you can root for someone without watching him play, and that rooting won’t have any effect on his performance anyway, but I was here to observe the tribesmen’s way of life, not poke holes in their religion.

And so the 12 of us in my playtime pretend football league chose the fake squads of millionaires on whom our sad hopes would be pinned for the next four months. You get 14 players, which includes your main cast and some understudies. My decision to cast Michael Vick as my lead quarterback was controversial — not because he used to kill dogs for a living (I guess everybody got over that), but because it was unclear how well he would perform this season. The season is almost halfway over now, and it’s still unclear. To me, anyway, because I haven’t looked.

The only thing I have to do week to week is check in at ESPN.com and see if I need to pull replacements off the bench to sub for players who are injured or suspended or had a scheduling conflict, like maybe they have a doctor’s appointment at the same time as the game. The points are tabulated automatically. I thought it would be funny if my randomly chosen team wound up doing as well as some of the more carefully crafted ones, and while I was right that that would be funny, it hasn’t happened. My team has done quite poorly. Worst in the league. Maybe there’s more to this “rooting” business than I thought.


 

A Year of Snide Remarks was funded by a Kickstarter campaign. This week’s column was sponsored by VarsityQuarterback DVD Training Series. Sponsor had no editorial control over the column, and the author alone is responsible for its content.