The end of an era

I started playing Fantasy Football in 1984, back when Cliff Charpentier’s fantasy season preview was the Bible of preparation, even though it was little more than a compilation of players ranked by the previous season’s statistics. We tried to track our scores from tantalizing snippets on the evening news and had to run outside early Monday morning to grab the newspaper in order to check the box-scores by hand to find out if we’d won or lost. Walter Payton was my first-ever first-round draft pick and I finished out of the money that year.

Things have changed a lot since then. Fantasy Football is a billion dollar business and every channel with a football game but Fox runs continuous individual player stat lines across the bottom of the screen to help you keep track. Not that it’s necessary, because there are multiple services and websites that keep score in real time and I merely have to look over my shoulder at my computer screen to check the score of my fantasy game while I’m watching a real game. Oh, and for the third time in the last four years, my team is playing in my league’s Fantasy Bowl this weekend (as I write this I’m already down 12-0 since my opponent had Ben Roethlisberger playing Thursday night).

Win or lose, this is also going to be my last game.

It’s not that I’ve grown bored with my success or with the game. For the last 23 years I’ve been in at least one league every year, and often as the Commissioner. To some extent it’s been a year-round hobby as I’ve tried to stay on top of off-season moves and their implications and overall it’s been an interesting and often passionate pastime. I’ve always enjoyed the combination of luck and skill required to build a winning record: the pre-draft preparation and hunches on who were going to be the best players in the coming year, the way the best-laid plans could be thrown out the window by capricious injuries, and how you had to hustle to come up with alternate plans and players as a result. This year, however, it has all been more of a chore for me than entertainment.

To some extent it may be due to those nagging distractions called “life” getting in the way. My personal life has had a fair amount of tumult since last spring that left me with relatively little free time to dwell on football, and little inclination to do so when I could have. I think the biggest issue, however, has become the carnage on the field.

As I said, luck and injuries were a wild card in every season and something you simply expected (hoping that it wouldn’t happen to your team) and accepted as part of the randomness that made the game entertaining. Somewhere along the line, however, it started to work on me that these injuries weren’t just an inconvenience I had to work around, but something tangible, painful and even devastating to the real person involved. Not that the existence of fantasy football contributed to these injuries in any way, but it started to bother me that this was my “entertainment.”

Strangely enough, the turning point wasn’t a football injury. Last summer when pro wrestler Chris Benoit killed his family and himself there was a lot written about the wrestling culture and steroids and about how many wrestlers had died young or had serious personal problems. There was a lot of media hand-wringing about who was to blame — the promoters, the personality types drawn to being wrestlers, the lifestyle, etc. No one seemed to touch on what seemed to me to be the obvious: if people weren’t paying out big money to watch the shows, go to the events and buy the merchandise then there wouldn’t be the incentive for the performers to try to make a name and physique for themselves, travel 300 days a year and resort to drugs to buid themselves up and to ease or mask the pain and debilitations that came from being a human torpedo. As I self-righteously scoffed at wrestling fans for being enablers I had a chilling revelation of my own fandom.

No, it isn’t fantasy football that’s driving young men to seek fame and fortune in exchange for their bodies in the NFL (speaking as one who gave up a knee playing the game for free), but my attitude has shifted and I don’t know if will ever go back. I still enjoy watching the game and the big hits, but I can feel myself pulling back.

I made my “retirement” announcement to my league at the end of our regular season, before our play-offs, so the rest of the owners can start thinking about finding a replacement Commissioner now, when the season is at it’s peak, and not in the dog days of summer. I received a very gratifying email from one of the owners thanking me for the entertainment value I brought to the league (via weekly game summaries) and asking me to reconsider. In the message he said my passion and commitment would be missed and couldn’t be duplicated. I told him that I thought the passion and commitment may very well be duplicated by someone else — I just knew that I couldn’t duplicate it any longer, and that was the surest sign that it was time to hang it up.

It’s been a bit odd going through these final weeks as I’ve advanced through the play-offs. I’ve caught myself filing away mental notes about players for next year out of habit before realizing, wryly, there won’t be a next year. Oh well, wish me luck this weekend! I’ve got a 12-point deficit to make up and a decision to make of which two players to start between Ryan Grant, LenDale White and Brandon Jacobs, all while praying for good weather in New England so Randy Moss can catch three touchdown passes.

Other than that, it’s back to reality.

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