Fantasy sports, yea or nay?

Originally Published: August 4, 2009
By DJ Gallo and Paul Lukas | Page 2

PAUL LUKAS: About 10 years ago, I met up with a friend for a few beers, and he was in a pissy mood. When I asked why, he pointed toward the bar's TV: "Jeter just hit into a double play with the bases loaded."

"Since when do you care about Derek Jeter?" I asked. "You hate the Yankees even more than I do."

"Yeah, but Jeter's on my fantasy team," he said. "That double play just killed me."

And that was my introduction to how playing fantasy sports turns you into a moron. Or at least into a completely different life form. Here was a guy who under normal circumstances would rather wrestle a live porcupine than root for the Yankees, but now he was suddenly a Jeter fan.

And that's my problem with the fantasy phenomenon: It messes with your circuitry, scrambles your natural impulses, corrupts the essence of what makes us fans. Suddenly you're not happy about your team scoring a few insurance runs in the bottom of the eighth; instead, you're mad because your closer can no longer get a save. You don't care if the bunt is the right play in a given situation; you want the guy to swing away so he can get an RBI.

To paraphrase a famous line, I've seen some of the best sports minds of my generation destroyed by fantasy games. DJ, is yours one of them?

DJ GALLO: No, mine is not one of the best sports minds of this generation, but then you probably knew that.

[+] EnlargeDerek Jeter
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhIf you're a Yankee hater, can you have Jeter on your fantasy team? Tough call.

As to your Yankees-hating fan who was pulling for Derek Jeter, there is no defense for that. He is sports-fan scum. It's not OK to root for a player on a hated rival, no matter the circumstance.

But here's the thing: That sort of fantasy sports guy is more an aberration than the norm.

Many people, including me, refuse to draft rival players to their fantasy team. I am a Steelers fan, so you won't find any Ravens, Browns or Bengals on my fantasy football team. (Thankfully, there are rarely any Ravens, Browns or Bengals worth drafting. But I digress.) But that's the way to do it. Fantasy sports should never trump your rooting loyalties. Ever. To do so means your fandom can be bought for some $100 fantasy payout. Pathetic.

What fantasy sports does for me is give me an impetus to follow some teams and players I probably wouldn't normally be compelled to watch. I'll probably flip over to the Diamondbacks game today to see a couple of Stephen Drew's at-bats because he's the shortstop on my fantasy team. (No, I am not winning my fantasy league.)

What's wrong with fantasy sports if they get me to watch players that aren't on major-market teams forced down my throat by the networks?

LUKAS: I'll be sure to tell my friend he's scum the next time I see him (and will give him your contact info). But even if you avoid drafting players on teams you root against, what happens when your rival fantasy players draft players you normally root for?

In other words, what if someone else in your fantasy league drafts Ben Roethlisberger? I know you'll be rooting for Big Ben no matter what, but there's no way you can tell me there won't be an undercurrent of "Aw, crap" every time he tosses a TD pass, because you know it's going to help your fantasy opponent. As a 49ers fan, I don't ever want a situation in which a Frank Gore TD run leaves even a hint of a bad taste in my mouth. (Let's face it, Niners fans don't have much to cheer about as it is.)

That's my real problem with fantasy sports: They set up a conflict between your heart and your head. Even if you somehow end up with a roster full of players you like and your opponents are stocked with players you hate, you still have situational conflicts. Let's say the Mets are winning 11-2 in the eighth inning (I'm really putting the "fantasy" in fantasy sports here) and Luis Castillo gets a single. As a baseball fan, I know it would be bad form for Castillo to steal a base in that spot. But if Castillo's on my fantasy team, I'm going to be muttering, "C'mon, just go already," so he can pad his stats. And if K-Rod is on my fantasy team, I'm already going to be in a surly mood because he won't have a save opportunity in a blowout game.

By taking isolated acts out of their game contexts (an interception here, an RBI there), the fantasy game ends up turning all your sports knowledge and expertise -- acquired over a lifetime of fandom -- and makes it irrelevant.

As for the notion that fantasy sports help people pay attention to teams they wouldn't normally follow, let me get this straight: Between "SportsCenter," the MLB and NFL networks, your satellite dish and the 18 jillion sports-oriented Web sites and blogs out there, you need added help to follow what's going on? DJ, when we were kids, we only had access to a tiny fraction of the sports info we have today, but we still knew who all the players were. You know why? We bought baseball cards (and football cards, and various sports magazines, etc.) and pored over every square millimeter of them. We didn't need to set up phony games that turned our usual fan loyalties on their heads. If someone needs an extra reason to follow sports, maybe that person wasn't such a big fan to begin with.

GALLO: You're right. There are a jillion ways to follow sports now. But fantasy sports aren't some sort of crutch to lean on to help me pretend I like sports -- it's just one more advantage to being a modern fan, along with the league networks, blogs and my satellite dish; it's the dessert to that buffet.

Speaking to your (very) fictional 11-2 Mets lead in the eighth inning: Barring a lost remote, there is no conceivable reason I would be watching that game at that point if it was not for Player X being on my fantasy team. If having no interest in an 11-2 regular-season baseball game makes me a bad sports fan, well … so be it. But if I have a player on one of the teams, maybe I watch; maybe I learn a thing or two about one of the teams' bullpens or bench players that makes me a more knowledgeable fan, a more knowledgeable writer; maybe I'm even one of the 5,000 people still watching to witness another Mets bullpen implosion that leads to an exciting comeback. Who knows?

But fantasy sports offer me an additional way to be engaged as a fan beyond going to games, watching them on TV or reading news sites and blogs. That's a good thing.

For some fantasy players, I suppose there is a conflict between their hearts and their heads, between wanting the Steelers to win and not wanting Ben Roethlisberger to play well. But that person is the one who is probably not a true sports fan to begin with.

Again, if your fan loyalties are for sale for some $100 fantasy payout, you're not a real fan. You could just as easily be convinced to switch team allegiances for a fancy $120 Cleveland Browns sweatshirt.

Let's at least agree that such people are among the lowest sports-fan life forms and deserve our scorn and ridicule. (Your friend, for example, Paul. Please pass my best scorn and ridicule onto him. Thanks.)

But from my experience, most fantasy sports people don't fit into that box.

LUKAS: Fair enough. But my own experience is that most people are all too willing to set themselves up for all sorts of head/heart conflicts for a lot less than $100. If you've ever been in a bar sitting next to a guy who had 50 bucks riding on whether a certain team would beat the spread (or had Derek Jeter on his fantasy team even though he's not a Yankees fan), you probably know what I'm talking about.

I think we both agree on the qualities that make up a good fan. We just don't agree on how fantasy sports affect those qualities. And on that I think we can agree to disagree.

GALLO: Maybe.

DJ Gallo and Paul Lukas are both columnists for Page 2.