Football is tiring. Not playing it; following it. Any sport is, or at least can be these days. This needn’t be a comment on the state of modern media and the excesses of mobile devices — that much is self-evident to anyone who has to rip him or herself away from the phone or computer for fear of dry retinas and fried gray matter. There’s just a lot of stuff going on. Sorting out the rosters is a chore in itself without getting into projected snap counts and running back timeshares, and that’s without getting into the grisly stories off the field.
And then there’s fantasy football. It has become an institution, an industry, an economy unto itself, and it is as much a part of today’s NFL as Bud Light and shoddy commissionership. There are people who get paid a living wage to talk about it, this game within a game. It has “fantasy” right there in the title, yet has won mainstream acceptance while LARPing waits on the fringes.
This isn’t meant to be a screed against fantasy football, nor a rallying cry for the LARPing community; au contraire.1 On one particular night, fantasy football brought me a special sort of happiness. It made me smile and laugh, and then do both some more. It made me appreciate friends and sports and America. It helped me forget my sorrows and focus on my blessings. It rescued at least one day in my life from a sad fate.
I’m overselling it a bit. The day was September 9, 2015 (i.e. yesterday), and the sad fate was just going to bed a little bummed out. I didn’t get a great night’s sleep Tuesday, thus I wasn’t at my brightest at work Wednesday. Then I got some mild admonishment (or, depending on the reader: helpful, appreciated, constructive criticism) from a boss lady type (or: valued mentor). It was the sort of day that can only end with absentminded television viewing, for shutting the brain off can be its own therapy.
So I did just that. I had almost-dinner,2 put off some chores til the next day, and plunked myself down on the couch. I poked around Netflix. Did I want something new, or something comfortable? I split the difference and turned on the latest season premiere of a show all about — wouldn’t you know it — fantasy football: The League.3
I like The League. I like it quite a bit. It isn’t the sort of friend I would ask to be my best man or even be in the wedding party, but I think it gets an invitation. It’s sharper than I initially gave it credit for. There’s wordplay and snappy dialogue; the fact that it doubles as profane trash talk is just a bonus. It’s semi-scripted, with improv filling in the space around prescribed jokes and plot points. NFL players and commentators make frequent cameos, some of which are funny and some of which are funny for the wrong reasons.
It reminds me, as I imagine it reminds a great many, of my own fantasy league. I’ve had the good fortune of playing with increasingly old friends for some ten years. Our league is not quite as insane as that on TV — thankfully, in my view; I’m not a supporter of public humiliation for being the victim of little more than bad luck — but it is guided by the same principles. It’s about competition, and it’s about camaraderie. It’s about knowing your opponent well enough to fashion a barb out of a long-forgotten embarrassing memory, and it’s about knowing your opponent well enough for that to be okay. It’s like Spider and Tommy bantering in Goodfellas, minus the bullet wounds.4
The league, lowercase, is a means to keep in touch with people who, I’m sorry to say, I probably wouldn’t otherwise. It isn’t a mean-spirited thing; it’s just tough. Once you lose that frequent meeting place (e.g., school, sport, work, city), it can be tricky to maintain a relationship. Life gets busy, and stuff gets in the way, and the phone becomes curiously difficult to use. This isn’t to say that friendships die once the parties separate, but they can go into suspended animation. Fantasy football helps keep them moving.
The League brings those friendships to mind. It doesn’t hold up a mirror to my fantasy football experience, or if it does, it’s of the funhouse variety. The show shares lineage with Seinfeld and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia in that its main characters are as lovable as rabid goats. All have endearing qualities, but all have had their souls digested by the quest for their league’s championship trophy. They’re an NFL coach’s wet dream turned nightmare: they put their teams first, and will go to any length to get an edge, social mores and general goodness be damned. (Strike the nightmare part if the coach in question is William Stephen Belichick.)
In the sixth season premiere, for instance, the gang conducts their fantasy draft in a synagogue. During a funeral. Of a league member. No matter; they press on with the draft, the deceased’s team included (“Ted would have wanted it this way,” they agree). The draft is interrupted by grieving family members, and the draft board is hurriedly stuffed into the coffin. A redraft is out of the question, as each owner wants very badly to maintain his or her current roster, and the chase is on to recover the document of record from a pinewood box destined for dirt. Hilarity ensues.
It isn’t the highest of brows, nor does it have to be. On Wednesday night, I just wanted to kick back and enjoy some vicarious life. So I watched The League, and I laughed and I smiled, and before you know it, my crap day was gone. The show brought perspective. All the stuff that happened still happened, but it didn’t matter quite so much anymore. I was looking forward to setting my week’s lineup. I was happier. I was enjoying myself. I was doing what I reckon we should try to do while alive.
It’s a powerful thing, no? The idea that a 22-minute television program can change the course of 24 hours? That’s what happened to me. Down turned to up, frown turned to smile, and red turned to black. And it was thanks, if in a roundabout way, to fantasy football. Our imaginations tend to atrophy as we get older, but thanks to football or LARPing or whatever else, we can still escape into a fantasy world.