Loyalty, not economy, takes a hit with fantasy fanaticism



November 18, 2005|By KEVIN VAN VALKENBURG

According to a study released this week - by the job placement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas - fantasy sports are ruining the American workplace.

More than 32 million people in this country play fantasy football, the study estimated, and if they spend an average of 10 minutes a day setting their lineups, mulling over trade possibilities and wondering whether Green Bay Packers running back Samkon Gado is the next Christian Okoye, that adds up to more than $196 million in lost productivity during football season alone.

Upset that your health insurance premiums keep going up? Blame the guy in the cubicle next to you. Every time he contemplates grabbing Joey Harrington from his league waiver wire, he's affecting the company's bottom line.

At least that's what we're supposed to believe. Personally, I seriously doubt fantasy sports are crippling the U.S. economy any more than, say, e-mail or cigarette breaks. Office workers - much to the chagrin of corporate profiteers everywhere - can't be replaced by drones. At least not yet.

Fantasy sports are, however, ruining the way we follow real sports. And if you ask me, that's far more troubling.

It didn't happen overnight, and no one entity deserves a lion's share of the blame, but it's impossible to deny. (And as a reluctant participant in three fantasy leagues, I admit I'm part of the problem, not the solution.) Each day, bit by bit, our loyalties to teams are being eroded by our obsession with individuals. And at this point, I fear, there's no turning back.

Need proof? Go to the Ravens game on Sunday and watch how many conflicted faces you see every time Pittsburgh's Hines Ward catches a pass. Outwardly, Charm City's hatred for all things Steelers will still be apparent. But secretly, there will be plenty of Baltimore fans gleefully tallying up Ward's fantasy points inside their heads. They still want the Ravens to win, of course. They just want Ward to rack up stats in the process. He's on their fantasy teams, you see. As far as I'm concerned, that's like pulling for Robert E. Lee, but claiming you still want the Union to defeat the Confederate Army. Any way you justify it, it's still sports treason.

Of course, fantasy sports don't just force us to divide our loyalties, they also cloud our perspective. They help us lose sight of what makes an athlete special, in part because there's no statistical measure for toughness, courage under fire or leadership. And though most general managers seem to understand that you shouldn't run your actual team like a fantasy team - Pat Riley in Miami and Isiah Thomas in New York being the most recent exceptions to that rule - fans rarely seem to care when teams make foolish decisions based on statistical upgrades.

Trent Dilfer certainly found this out the hard way. Despite winning a Super Bowl with him in January 2001, the Ravens dumped Dilfer in the offseason and signed Elvis Grbac, a quarterback who had hardly won a thing in real life. Grbac was, however, coming off an exceptional season from a fantasy football perspective, and so there was little outrage (including within these pages) until he started throwing interceptions against the Cleveland Browns and bursting into tears on the sideline, something he'd been more or less doing in Kansas City for years before his arrival in Baltimore.

Fantasy sports have become so woven into the cultural zeitgeist, there are literally millions of sports fans who believe absurd things based solely on hollow statistics. They'll argue, with a straight face no less, that Peyton Manning is a better quarterback than Tom Brady, that Alex Rodriguez is more valuable than Derek Jeter and that Stephon Marbury is a good basketball player. It's ridiculous. I'm not sure I'd pick Marbury if I were trying to win a Rucker Park men's league. But, hey, the man sure can fill up a stat sheet.

There's no doubt that fantasy sports add spice to countless bar arguments, and they certainly generate interest, two things my colleague Childs Walker nailed when he wrote about the subject in this space a week ago. They also help you keep in touch with people you otherwise might have left behind. My baseball fantasy league is mostly made up of guys from my college newspaper. Some, I haven't seen in years.

But I'm also convinced that fantasy sports now act as an enabler. As fans, we're more tolerant of jerks as long as they produce, because character doesn't really matter when all you need is an Internet connection to call yourself a GM.

As Terrell Owens proved until recently, you can be a borderline lunatic and the most insufferable fool imaginable, but as long as you can put up stats, someone will give you a contract and a uniform. The fans won't care. I also don't think it's coincidence that the whole Owens mess came to a boil when ESPN commentator Michael Irvin threw out what was essentially a fantasy football argument: Would the Eagles be undefeated with Brett Favre under center instead of Donovan McNabb?

Maybe. Problem is, Favre's just not available. Maybe the Eagles should give Elvis Grbac a call instead.

kevin.vanvalkenburg @baltsun.com

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