Fantasy Football: God’s Curse on Mankind Is All Dumb Luck
by Ted Kluck
I quit fantasy football a decade ago and was only enticed back by my sports editor, and the prospect of being thought of as “cool” by a room full of college students. Vanity is a difficult mistress.
I knew it was time to quit a decade ago when I stood in chuch singing “Behold Our God,” all the while secretly wondering if I could get back home in time to switch out my flex player, due to the uncertain status of another man’s injured groin. This is what twelve-step programs call “rock bottom.” I quit the following season and didn’t look back. I rediscovered the joy of cheering for teams, and the joy of a good game for the sake of a good game.
For the uninitiated: fantasy football is a game in which you are given points based on the actual performance of a “team” of actual NFL skill players whom you draft before the season and then trade-for during the season. For example, if LeVeon Bell rushes for 100 yards and scores a touchdown I get 16 points. Fantasy football is also a massive marketing vehicle that has spawned all manner of alternate revenue streams for the NFL and its associated networks (ESPN, NBC, CBS, FOX, and The NFL Network). Fantasy football is also responsible for the constant stat-updates that gunk up what would otherwise be a clean and straightforward game broadcast, and recently spawned “one-week fantasy” which is basically euphemistic for “sad and depressing legalized sports gambling.”
This year I’m in first place and have only lost one time. I played high school football, was a scholarship player in college, and have played and coached, on some level, for the past twenty years in semi-pro leagues, arena leagues, and in Europe. I have friends who played in the NFL. I’m here today to tell you that none of that matters at all in fantasy football because fantasy football is all about dumb luck. Let me explain.
Parity, Randomness, and Chance
In years past I did copious amounts of fantasy football research. I purchased and then pored-over magazines. I charted trends, and even wrote a short-lived fantasy football column for a publication of questionable repute. In the midst of all that research, I sometimes won my leagues, and other times went 4-12. The 4-12 years were agonizing, being that I still kind of identify with football and still expect to win because of my experience and lifetime of accumulated football knowledge. Also being that I’m a pathological sore loser. This, as you can imagine, made for some miserable Sunday afternoons and evenings.
Football knowledge and research is meaningless precisely for the same reason the NFL is so successful: parity. The NFL employs the world’s greatest football players in a revenue-sharing environment, meaning that even the winless Cleveland Browns will probably win a game or two before the season is over, and even the dominant New England Patriots will probably lose a few times. This is just a complicated way of saying that all of the players in the NFL are really, really, good and all are capable of turning in statistically dominant performances on (as they say) any given Sunday. So to a large degree it really doesn’t matter who you have on your fantasy football team.
Building a Team
To wit, I did almost no research this season and simply tried to employ the team-building strategies I champion in real life. I drafted and acquired a stable of big backs – all of whom are over 220 lbs and all of whom are their team’s primary ballcarrier. I got a suspended LeVeon Bell off the waiver wire, signed Jay Ajayi just before he went off to the tune of back-to-back 200 yard games, and drafted David Johnson with my first round pick. I got Jordan Howard off waivers too.
I drafted a quarterback I like (Marcus Mariota) just because I knew he’d be on TV all the time in my market. Ditto for my tight end (Delanie Walker). I signed several Detroit Lions because I made a movie in Detroit this fall and felt a connection to the city.
I spent nothing on wide receivers and as I type this cannot tell you who my starting WR’s are – this being the most volatile position in fantasy football. You can almost throw a dart at a list of NFL receivers and find a serviceable fantasy receiving corps. I chose the Houston Texans defense because my son’s favorite player is Brian Cushing.
Fairy Tales and Poetry
What’s especially evil about fantasy football is that now that I’m 9-1 I’m starting to care again. I play my managing editor next week – a girl who only recently watched her first NFL game and boasts an impressive collection of Star Wars memorabilia. She’s 8-2 and explained that she was going to spend her Thanksgiving Break (and I quote) “reading fairy tales and poetry.”
The silver lining in all of this, of course, is that it’s allowed me to know a great group of people a little bit better. Watching the fairy-tales-and-poetry girl dive headlong into NFL statistical minutiae has actually been really fun. As has the weeks of trash talk we have enjoyed, building up to our clash of the titans next week. She’s done a great job building her team. But it’s a very real possibility that I will lose in fantasy football to her, which might throw me into an emotional tailspin of doubt and despair. If that happens, somebody grab me and make me re-read this column, about how it’s all luck and randomness and chance.
Baseball Gods and Fantasy Football
By Ali Renckens
When I looked at my phone and saw 11-8, my heart dropped. I clicked “My Team” and scrolled through my players, looked at Team Smith’s roster, and consulted ESPN. Then, being home for Thanksgiving break, I ran outside, where my dad was mowing the lawn. I made him stop and showed him my phone, pointing to where I was projected to lose 123-126.
“I wouldn’t worry about it until after the first quarter,” he said.
I joined the crazy world of fantasy football because Ted Kluck (the Cardinal & Cream faculty advisor) walked up to the table where my friend Lydia and I were eating in Cobo, pointed at me, and said, “Caleb [the sports editor] and I are making a fantasy football league. You need to join. There’s an email in your inbox.”
I grew up in Tampa, the hometown of three major sports: hockey, baseball, and football. But we’re not known for our football. Or our baseball. (In a good way.) For me, the difference between football and baseball is that I enjoy baseball.
I have never watched a televised football game. I have watched a lot of high school football games…using the word “watched” loosely. I ran the concession stand, talked to my friends, and called quarters “innings”.
Even as I agreed to join fantasy football, I knew that my competitive nature would take over. I started running crosscountry in middle school. My first meet, I was in fourth place, mere feet from the finish line, when I stopped. I couldn’t see straight. I could barely walk. My flushed red face contrasted with my dead white lips. Following my dad’s voice, I kept lurching to the finish where I swooned and threw up. I still finished seventh in a race with more than a hundred runners, but the fact that I could have been fourth or possibly even third bugged me well into high school.
My first two weeks playing fantasy were not great. I lost both. My first week, I played one of the two teams that led the league for nine weeks on his best game of the season. My second game I only lost by seven points. Then I buckled down.
I started reading about football. ESPN, Sports Illustrated, CBS…anything that could give me an insight into this world of tackles and touchdowns. I started consulting with my dad. I checked my line-up and stats over and over and over.
And the Alley Cats started winning. (Side note: I also flirted with team names based off of Star Wars: Imperial Strikers, Tatooine Sandstorms, etc. I finally decided on a play on my name inspired by Disney’s The Aristocats.) After those first two games, I went on an eight-game winning streak. By week 11, I led the league in points. I led the western league in wins. Only Ted, whose team was 9-1, was ahead of me.
Week 11, my team played Team Smith. If I won, I would only need one more win to clinch a spot in the play-offs. Plus, I like to win. Sunday, I checked my phone constantly. My defense had played Thursday and almost gave me 15 points, but they allowed 17 points in the 4th quarter, leaving me with eight.
I was projected to lose, then win by 12 points, then we were projected to tie, then she was projected to win, then me. Then tie.
If art and creativity do come from pain, the next few weeks may result in the best writing of my life.
I took my laptop down to the living room. To watch a football game. On TV. For the first time. Ever.
The Bucs were playing the Kansas City Chiefs. (Until maybe an hour before, I had not even known Kansas City had a team other than the Royals). According to an article by Tom Jones, the Bucs reporter for the Tampa Bay Times, the Chiefs are arguably the best team in the AFC. (I also didn’t know what the AFC was.) They were 16-4 at home since the 2014 season. Sports Illustrated ranked them No. 3 in their power rankings. The Bucs were No. 21.
Jones wrote, “If you’re an NFL team, there are three types of games: Games that you are supposed to win. Games that you are supposed to lose. And games that could go either way. Today is a game the Bucs are supposed to lose…But sooner or later, if you’re going to take the next step as a franchise, you have to win games you’re not supposed to. You need to pull off an upset that makes everyone go, ‘Whoa!’”
When I joined fantasy football, I knew that I would probably lose. How could a girl who never had any interest in football possibly compete with a bunch of guys who have been watching the sport their whole lives?
But if ever the baseball gods were smiling on their downtrodden worshippers, they were this year. The year that the teams with the two worst records in the MLB faced each other in the World Series. The year that people yell-sang “Go, Cubs, Go” all the way down Lake Shore Drive and threw blue streamers in the air. Maybe – just maybe – this was the year that a baseball-loving football novice from Tampa could win a fantasy football league.
Team Smith was finished with 134 points. I bit my nails, watching my last three men, none of them earning me points. Washington kept trying to run a play (is that what it’s called?) instead of using my kicker. Then, when my fantasy score was 133-134, they used my kicker. And instead of tying the game for me, his kick sent the football into the side of the goalpost.
Lost in the madness of this world where fantasy pervades reality and I actually care about football, like Alice falling down the rabbit hole, I screamed.
I screamed again, less than two minutes later, when Adams caught a pass and earned me five points.
I won that week and so did the Bucs. Sometimes you do win games you shouldn’t. I think that’s part of why we love sports so much – we love the idea that someone or some team with everything against them can still win, like a team with an 108-year losing streak winning the World Series.
(And, hopefully, the baseball gods will at least wink at Tampa next season.)