Friday, September 30, 2005

Real Life Fantasy

“Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?” –Queen, “Bohemian Rhapsody”

No time for a full Sun Belt West preview today, so I'll post something I had been working on for next week. Maybe you can chew on it over the weekend. Have a good one.

I had never caught fantasy fever until a few years ago after some high school budroes asked me to join their fantasy baseball league. I saw this as an opportunity to interact with some long-lost chums from my formative years—years rife with post-football game dances, ridiculously long conversations about who we would like to date, and an incredible amount of Sportscenter viewing. Fantasy sports seemed to be a nice arena in which to re-establish contact. We all love sports. We all love stats. We all love talking trash to one another. It seemed like a natural fit.

Admittedly, I have enjoyed the leagues, but I think that is mostly due to the fact that I do not live and die with any professional team. I can assemble a motley group of players from the Browns, Bengals, and Steelers free of guilt. I can have Derek Jeter and Jason Varitek, icons of Yankeedom and Red Sox Nation, in my lineup with no cognitive dissonance. I could put Shaq and Kobe in my starting lineup and sleep like a baby. The only team with whom I live and die is Western Kentucky University—a college team immune from fantasy statistics. I renounced my Yankee fandom years ago and I have never supported any NBA team with vigor. I loosely consider myself an Oakland Raiders fan, but that stems from the fact that Bo Jackson was my childhood hero. It is more of an obligation than a passion with the Raiders. My home state of Kentucky has no major professional sports teams and “hockey” is something that you do in the woods when lacking proper toilet facilities. A good portion of the state supports the Reds or the Bengals, but I never felt connected to either of those teams. Cincinnati is a long way from my hometown of Hudson, KY.

Why can I not get connected to a pro team? A combination of many factors probably contributed to this dilemma, including the marketing of players over teams, free agency, overpaid prima donnas, strikes, and any number of other issues. College basketball fights its own corruption demons, but I know that WKU players are not going to strike or hold out and I see the cars that many of our players drive. These guys are NOT getting plush vehicles from WKU—that is for sure. Oh, and Scott Boras does not represent any of them. That is always a bonus.

I have come to believe that the fantasy sports mentality has contributed to my lack of passion regarding any pro teams, too. Cable sports channels run scores and stats 24/7 on the bottom the screen. Every Sunday, there is a special “fantasy top 10” ticker. Tuesday night, Dan Patrick and Sean Salisbury discussed “Best Fantasy Picks” for this coming week during a segment of Sportscenter. Owning a fantasy team is the ultimate power trip, even though the owner has no real control over what a player does. It gives the illusion that one could be a good general manager, but it merely shows who can get lucky with injuries (especially in fantasy football) and who can log on the quickest and pick up Willie Parker, or whoever went nuts the week before, for insertion into next week’s lineup.

Team and atmosphere, competition and rivalry, sportsmanship in winning and losing—these ideas get shoved to the sidelines by fantasy sports. The Fantasy Mentality undermines all that is good about sports. There is no fantasy value for tailgating with college buddies. There is no stat line for the smell of popcorn wafting into my section at Diddle Arena. A last second shot to win the game registers as a measly two points in a fantasy league, but in reality it wields the terrible power to spark jubilation or strike crushing despair into thousands of hearts the moment it hits the bottom of the net. There is no added fantasy value for nippy winter walks to a college arena with wives, children, and family. No fantasy league standings can account for the power of a fight song or alma mater ringing in your ears. No bonuses apply from the halftime conversation with the elderly living encyclopedia sitting next to you who has had season tickets for thirty-five years. When my first concern is “How many yards did Corey Dillon have?”, and not, “Who won the Patriots game?”, then something is a tad askew. The value of the individual over the team serves as a sad indicator of our cultural values.

Reducing the experience of sports to a statline imprisons our passion. It fails to account for the wonderful experience of uniting with thousands of other REAL humans in cheering on a local college team or a towns’ Double-A club. It could even cause a Raiders’ fan to pick up a Denver Broncos running back in a pitiful and desperate attempt to shore up a disappointing fantasy running game or replace an injured player. And that, my friends, simply should not happen. That is an utter travesty.

Now, if you will excuse me, I have to make sure that I have Travis Hafner “active” tomorrow. He’s been red hot lately.