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Crusading For Fantasy Football

My brother is on a crusade for fantasy football. More accurately, he proselytizes for fantasy football, but any editor will tell you that accuracy stops doing any good as soon as it starts sounding like a foreign language.

In any event, my brother likes to convert people to fantasy football. And he always starts the conversion process in the same way: "Fantasy football," he says, then pauses, then chuckles, "it sounds sort of gay, doesn't it?"

This isn't the beginning of a homophobic rant, but of his sales pitch. And somehow 'gay,' at least the way he uses it, doesn't mean anything close to what it ordinarily means. Rather, it suggests a particular kind of socially undesirable male geek-someone either ridiculously overweight or underweight with glasses that are streaked with grease and covered with dust. Despite the most obvious meaning of 'gay,' the image that my brother conjures up is one of a lonely, anti-social nerd holed up in a one-bedroom apartment with posters of Cindy Crawford and Anna Kournikova plastered over his walls-someone who prefers the WWF to Broadway and a sack of Fritos to nouveau cuisine. What any of this imagery has to do with stereotypes of homosexuals is anybody's guess. But it's imagery that works for my brother despite his word choices because people's preconceptions concerning fantasy football are so entrenched.

It doesn't matter how fantasy football enthusiasts are described, people are inclined to think of them as sports geeks, stat freaks, or perhaps even as chronically deluded 98-pound weaklings in search of phony machismo mystique.

It's strange. It's inexplicable. But it's true.

When people at a party ask me what sort of writing I'm doing lately, I tell them I write about football if I want them to like me, and I tell them I write about fantasy football if I want to make them uncomfortable. "Fantasy football, huh?" they say hesitantly in response. And as they say it, their eyebrows charge sympathetically towards one another as if to complete the thought, "Are things really as bad as all that for you?"

The weird thing is that so many of the ordinary people who participate in fantasy football leagues assume that they are the only fantasy football players on the planet who would qualify as normal, healthy, productive members of society-that all others who enjoy the game are freakish physical and psychological specimens.

Is the problem the name? Does the 'fantasy' in fantasy football suggest the fantasy of 'fantasy and science fiction'? Does an affinity for fantasy football suggest that one compulsively rereads The Hobbit and has a character sheet for a twelfth level Elven thief with a name like Zoquepel and a magical hippogriff for a mount? If I play fantasy football, does that mean I dress up like Darth Vader every Halloween and argue with my cyber-penpals about which Star Trek movie was the best?

If it is the name, what could we change the name to? I've heard of rotisserie baseball, but that name suggests to me that someone has to baste Mark McGuire and turn him on a spit from time to time. And isn't the name really too firmly established to be changed? To make any progress, we'll have to change the public perception of fantasy football. Maybe it will take Fantasy Football Pride Marches. I don't know.

What I do know is that it will be difficult to make people understand that fantasy football is just another enjoyable intellectual puzzle worth thinking and talking about-just like . . . well, all of the examples that are coming to mind are pretty geeky, but that's not the point.

My point is that some people, for reasons that I can't quite make out, are deeply invested in the contempt that they feel for fantasy football. If you need an example, just consider the phone call that I received this Monday (July 1) from a literary agent. The background is this: I'm in the process of pitching a book proposal concerning fantasy football, a book that I believe would be helpful to the fantasy football community and marginally profitable for the house that publishes it. I knew it would be a hard sell going into the project, and I was perfectly prepared for rejection. That's okay. I've been writing and dealing with rejection for years. In my continuing struggle toward publication for the fantasy football book, I have contacted a number of literary agents known for their interest in sports. I send them a standard proposal package along with a self-addressed, stamped envelope. Most of them take one look at my proposal, throw it in the garbage, and stuff a form rejection letter into the envelope.

It's a simple process-elegant really. I can't blame them for passing on my project; no one is going to retire on a 15% commission from the royalty sales of a book on fantasy football. It's their professional prerogative to pass on projects that don't grab them. Agents are generally decent people looking for profitable titles that sincerely interest them. So I don't have any hard feelings about the form rejection letters.

But I was puzzled by the call I received on Monday. An agent with a number of popular sports book publications to his credit actually felt the need to call me and explain how emphatically uninterested he was in facilitating the publication of a book concerning fantasy football. "I won't be taking you on as a client," he said. "This isn't the kind of book I handle."

"Okay," I said, wondering why he hadn't simply mailed me a form rejection letter at my expense rather than calling me at his own.

"This sounds like some kind of gimmick or novelty item," he said.

"Thanks for the feedback," I said. There really wasn't any point in arguing about the value of a project he didn't understand.

"I'm the wrong agent for this kind of thing," he added. "I do books about real sports."

"I understand," I said.

"Real sports," he repeated.

For some reason, it was vitally important to him to impress upon me the distinction between fantasy football and real sports. Rather than simply firing off a rejection letter, he called me to make a fuss over that distinction. It was as if he believed that people involved in fantasy football had lost their hold on reality. If I'm correct, he imagines that we imagine we are Randy Moss and Peyton Manning and Marshall Faulk rolled into one. His tone made him sound as if he believed fantasy football to be a role-playing game in which adults impersonate their favorite NFL players.

I didn't bother explaining that I am perfectly capable of imagining myself to be Jevon Kearse without the assistance of a support group of friends and co-workers. I didn't bother with any kind of explanation. I couldn't help being a little surprised that something so familiar to me and the people around me could be so completely foreign to someone else. And maybe we in the fantasy football community will just have to live with misconceptions like that agent's. As all editors know, people simply don't bother to be accurate about that which they perceive as foreign.


I received some interesting responses to last month's column concerning preseason predictions, including one from Keith, who has obviously put quite a lot of thought into generating reasonable preseason predictions. He explained some of the reasons why my predictions for last season were so wildly off base as follows:

"First of all you made the most common mistake of predicting the good teams to be great and the bad teams to be horrible.

"To illustrate this point, you had 8 teams finishing with 12 wins or more. Reality was that 5 teams finished at 12 or better. A good general rule is that 5-6 teams will be at 12 or more wins. In every case except one (the Rams who are just a freak of nature!), you would have been closer to the actual by knocking those teams down a couple of wins.

"Along the same lines you had a whopping 9 teams finishing with 5 wins or under. 6 teams really finished with 5 or fewer wins. Same general rule about 6-7 teams finishing five or under. Once again only one, the lowly Panthers, was closer than if you had bumped all these teams up a couple of notches.

"There will always be the random flyers, but the competition is so close in the NFL that almost everybody makes this same mistake. The above may not be perfect but just remember to temper your enthusiasm and don't be overly pessimistic: ~ 60% (you predicted 45%) of the teams have historically and will most likely continue to be between 6-11 wins."

Keith followed up these observations with his predictions for the 2002 season:

  Wins Losses     Wins Losses
AFC East       NFC East    
Miami 9 7   Philadelphia 9 7
New York Jets 9 7   New York Giants 8 8
New England 8 8   Washington 7 9
Buffalo 7 9   Dallas 7 9
AFC North       NFC North    
Pittsburgh 10 6   Minnesota 9 7
Cleveland 9 7   Green Bay 9 7
Baltimore 8 8   Chicago 9 7
Cincinnati 8 8   Detroit 6 10
AFC South       NFC South    
Indianapolis 8 8   Atlanta 8 8
Tennesee 8 8   New Orleans 8 8
Jacksonville 7 9   Tampa Bay 8 8
Houston 6 10   Carolina 5 11
AFC West       NFC West    
Denver 8 8   St. Louis 12 4
Oakland 8 8   San Francisco 10 6
Kansas City 7 9   Arizona 7 9
San Diego 7 9   Seattle 7 9

Keith adds, "I'll be willing to put these predictions up against anyone's, but there is a good chance that the good old 8-8 for everyone will be the closest to correct (measured by number of total wins off) at the end of the year."

One set of predictions Keith won't be putting his predictions up against is mine. If anyone asks for my predictions this year, I'll be using Keith's-just because I like the way he thinks. But if you think differently, you can email me your predictions for the NFL season (along with your explanation of your 'system,' if you have one), and we can revisit the predictions in Week 17.

(Thanks in advance for your feedback, but I won't be able to respond to your messages until July 20th.)