By all measures, I should like fantasy. I want to like fantasy. But I have an instinctive dislike of fantasy sports. And now I know why.
Around this time each year, when NFL anticipation is building and fans everywhere are plunking down 20 bucks to join fantasy football leagues, I end up feeling a bit isolated from my fellow sports nuts.
It’s frustrating to decline invitations to join fantasy leagues, knowing that I’ll miss out on some great draft parties and fantastic email chains throughout football and baseball seasons (so, you know, year-round). By all measures, I should like fantasy. I want to like fantasy. But I have an instinctive dislike of fantasy sports. And after years of turning down those invites, I’ve finally figured out why: I’m too invested, unable to square my love of the game with the dispassionate charade of trading players.
It’s not just that joining a fantasy league would force me to root against my own team to win points and money. It’s that fantasy tries to make watching sports a rational pursuit. In fantasy, everything boils down to the numbers. It reduces each player to a bag of sterile statistics. To succeed, you need to impartially manipulate those bags of stats like a day trader pushing thin margins on the stock market. I can’t think of a more joyless exercise.
After all, fandom is fundamentally irrational. Nobody chooses which team to root for by evaluating the merits and flaws of every professional franchise and then objectively choosing the best. True fans sign on for life based on nothing more than the happenstance of geography or alma mater, and people who switch allegiances as adults are rightly known as traitors.
Furthermore, fan cred is earned by enduring your team’s lowest moments. As lifelong Oakland A’s fan, I’m asked about the time Jeremy Giambi forgot how to slide approximately 742 times more often than I am asked about winning the Bay Bridge series or the team’s record-setting 20-game win streak. Fantasy takes that bonding over shared terrible experience away in favor of cold calculations of “value.”
I approach sports not with the calculating eye of a mathematician but with the compromised fervor of a zealot. I am unwavering in my belief that my team is always the best one on the field, despite any hard evidence to the contrary. In fantasyland, I’d never put my football team’s fate in Jason Campbell’s hands, and if I somehow ended up with him, I’d dump him for a promising rookie by the second week. In the real world, Al Davis has made him my guy, so I root as if I can single-handedly will him to look less lost in the red zone. Only after I’ve watched another close one slip away can I discuss how Davis ruined the Raiders.
Let me be clear: I don’t believe the increasing use of statistics in sports has itself taken the joy out of fandom. I’m happy to tell you exactly why quarterback rating is a terrible way to measure whether Brady or Manning had the better Sunday. I yell at my TV whenever Chris Berman leaves out CC Sabathia’s 25th-ranked WHIP while arguing he’s the best pitcher in the game. I like statistics.
I also don’t think my aversion to fantasy football has anything to do with my gender. Contrary to Bill Simmons’ famous treatise on how women are ruining fantasy sports, I like trash-talking, cold beer and hot wings, and the occasional dirty joke. I even think “Premature Pitinos” is a pretty good team name. (This might be the time to mention I’m a Kentucky fan.) In fact, all of those things are part of the equation when I sit around watching games with my friends, despite the fact that I don't have balls to scratch.
Die-hard fans—both men and women—shed tears over dramatic losses. We cheer just as loudly for our third-stringers as we do for our Pro Bowlers. We refuse to wash our jerseys when our team is on a hot streak. Irrational loyalty is what makes us fans in the first place. So I, for one, plan on remaining a fantasy holdout. Because in fantasy, there are rarely tears, third-stringers are irrelevant nobodies, and there is no home jersey to wear.
photo via (cc) Andrew Dupont