A 2012 photo of Cliff Pennington and Jerry Blevins of the A’s setting fantasy football lineups before a playoff game.
We’ve all heard every pejorative description of fantasy sports: They’re nerdy, dorky, a waste of time, an obsession, a literal wishful “fantasy,” a reason significant others become abandoned for months at a time. Context depending, some of these accusations might even be true, but the disparagements miss the point: Fantasy sports have a vital social and emotional function. Men (and sports-inclined women, of course) may spend too much time on them at the expense of work and sanity, but we’re not only being drawn away by the numbers and the competition — we’re being drawn away by the opportunity and excuse to spend time with people we actually know and like.
To wit: I talk to Tom more frequently than all my other friends combined, yet I haven’t seen him in almost seven years. We are real-life friends — he’s a former law school classmate of mine. He’s also my co-manager in a high-stakes fantasy baseball league. The rest of our seven-year-old Yahoo! league comprises people we met online in “Fantasy Cafe” (like Match.com for sports addicts). They’re virtually strangers but virtual friends: There’s a bond salesman from Boston, a furniture salesman in St. Louis, a high school gym teacher in upstate New York, and a 68-year-old retired stockbroker in Dallas who struggles with technology but manages to set his lineup most of the time.
We’re a band of brothers (from different generations, I guess). Our league is an annual reunion. “It’s that time of year again, assholes!” is the typical message Tom and I get from our league commissioner in February, a solid two months before opening day. Our league drafts online, although many groups hold in-person drafts — in Las Vegas, random hotel conference rooms, backyard patios, wherever. What doesn’t matter is whether a member is any good at running a fake team. What matters is that he’s present. Always shows up. Pays attention to his team and others. Those who don’t keep up lose (real, non-fantasy) respect.
Credit Facebook and email for making 21st-century contact so easy, but those things are only channels for communication. Fantasy sports are actual social glue. Arguing with a “Facebook friend” (a status below actual friend or even acquaintance) about politics or sports is indisputably interaction, but it’s fleeting and superficial and you’re probably doing it because you were bored and they happened to be bored at the same time. It’s like talking to a stranger in an elevator. It’s not the same as belonging to something with someone else, even a virtual group known as “League of Extraordinary Fatbodies.” Fantasy sports leagues do not supplant in-person interaction. But they sustain bonds that might die in a non-technological world.
I’ve got some friends who don’t care for fantasy sports and some friendships that don’t need them to survive. Yet I’ve got others that I know would have long ago drifted apart if we hadn’t formed a league. One fantasy football league consists of friends I made while working as a camp counselor in Maine; several of them live in and around New York City, and during football season we rendezvous at dive bars. I belong to another league with old high school buddies, tying me to my formative fantasy football years, when we tallied matchups with newspaper box scores and loose-leaf paper. Each August I head home and see them on the same back porch where we used to drink beers and make bad decisions.
My father often says that if the internet and fantasy leagues existed when he began adulthood, he’d have probably kept a lot more friends. (Though maybe fathers are destined to lose most of their friends.) That’s just speculation, but he thinks that he might have his own “Tom” if he were my age: someone to send thousands of messages about WHIP, someone to email on Sunday with a weekly recap, someone to call about trade offers, someone to help him step away from the rest of life.
Tom recently had a son. I feared I might lose Tom to this higher calling, but I haven’t. Our partnership continues to flourish, although our team is floundering, because Tom still needs the same statistical, strategic stimulation that a fantasy partnership provides. Maybe in a few years, I’ll have a child too, and a couple dozen years after that, Baby Tom and Baby Brett will form a team of their own. Extraordinary Fatbodies: The Next Generation.