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Man has existed for 11,000 years, plus or minus 20 minutes. He has spent most of that time asking questions, most of which cannot be answered. The first of these unknowable queries was something along the lines of, "Who am I?" The second was, "What in the hell is going on here?" After that, things got easier -- but not by much. Suddenly, man was asking himself things like, "What does it mean to exist?' and "What is the nature of reality?" -- both of which led to several better-than-average albums recorded in San Francisco during the late 1960s and almost every novel written by Philip K. Dick. It is now 2006, and we still cannot sufficiently explain what calling something "real" is supposed to mean. But I do know this: We all want things to be real, even if we cannot elucidate what that is supposed to constitute.
This is something I have learned through fantasy football.
It is wholly possible that you think fantasy football is ridiculous (or, in the parlance of today's Sudoku-obsessed youth, "retarded"). If this is the case, I won't try to convince you. Go drink a Tab. However, if you're browsing this Web site (and particularly if you're reading this column), I suspect that you feel otherwise. I suspect you play fantasy football every single year, and this hobby has probably changed the way you watch NFL games, and -- at this very moment -- you are wondering how productive Larry Fitzgerald will be this season despite the fact that (A) you don't live in Arizona and (B) it's July. Much like filling out office pools for the NCAA basketball tournament, tossing around the rotisserie pigskin has become one of those pastimes just about everyone vaguely interested in sports seems to do, regardless how much (or how little) they care about pro football; at this point in American history, the number of people casually playing fantasy football is probably greater than the number of people seriously watching midseason baseball. I've been in the same fantasy football league for the past nine years; as far as I can tell, it's the only aspect of my life that does not evolve. But I fear my league is collapsing, and that collapse is my own fault. I've likely ruined this league for myself and everyone else in it, simply because I wanted things to be more real. Which is relatively crazy, particularly as fantasy football is called fantasy football.
For years, I pushed my fantasy peers toward the concept of a "keeper league," which we finally adopted in 2002. Every year, each owner is allowed to keep three players during the offseason. My original, rejected proposal was more radical; I wanted to force every team to keep all their players, so that the only way you could change your roster was through (A) trades, (B) waivers, or (C) the college draft. I wanted our pretend teams to operate like actual NFL franchises; I even considered some kind of a salary cap and arbitration period. My natural inclination is to make every detail more realistic, which -- at least in my mind -- makes everything better. But it turns out the opposite is true. Moving to a keeper league has really had only one impact: It has made "draft night" shorter and less exciting -- and that, of course, is typically the only night of the fantasy season that's really, truly fun (and the only evening of the entire year when I communicate with most of the other owners in real time). In other words, I actively convinced nine other dudes that we should make our fantasy league less social and more uninteresting.
I have no idea whether French post-structuralist Jean Baudrillard plays fantasy football. I'm guessing he does not (although -- if he does -- I bet he got burned by drafting Lawrence Phillips in 1997). His theories, however, seem central to the totality of its existence: Baudrillard likes to forward the concept of the simulacrum, which is (basically) a copy of something that never existed to begin with (the rudimentary example is a 1950s diner, a symbolic simulation of restaurants that were not actually around during the '50s). Fantasy football is a collection of simulacra; it's a symbolic, inexact interpretation of what makes a football player valuable. In my league, I get one point every time Daunte Culpepper passes for 25 yards. This is intended to reward the value of real-world passing, although it's an imperfect simulation; it does not differentiate between meaningful plays from the first quarter and garbage yards at the end of a 42-14 blowout. As such, at least one fantasy league game every week is decided for wholly unrealistic reasons (such as a completely innocuous interception during a Hail Mary at the end of the first half). This circumstance inevitably drives me crazy because it makes the whole fantasy venture seem like a fraud. But the more I think about the nature of the game I'm playing, the more I think I actually should love this problem. It should make me like fantasy football more. My mistake is trying to make a fantasy match reality; instead, I should be embracing the things about fantasy football that make it an autonomous, disconnected entity. I should be embracing the things that make it fake.
A few weeks ago, I purchased the EA strategy game "NFL Head Coach" (you have probably seen the commercials for this video game -- they usually include the Titans' Jeff Fisher bantering with some yahoo who looks like the owner of multiple Gov't Mule albums). I was, admittedly, pretty stoked about this purchase; it promised to be the most realistic coaching re-creation of all time. There is no element of the experience that has been overlooked: You must interview for a job, design original plays, deliver motivational platitudes, purchase various hats, fire your scouting director, ignore phone calls from agents and perform every other menial task imaginable. I was ready to play "NFL Head Coach" for the rest of my natural life. I loved my (virtual) job. "I'm just happy to be here," I thought to myself. I couldn't wait to make Drew Bledsoe run the option against his will. I covered the door to my apartment with Gov't Mule posters. This would be my new religion.
And you know what?
"NFL Head Coach" is -- indeed -- the most realistic sports simulation I've ever found.
And it sucks.
It is the dullest, most bureaucratic game ever created. All you ever do is sit through meetings, stare at scouting reports, watch scrimmages, and make unemotional small talk with an extremely detail-obsessed owner. This has got to be the only video game in the world where part of the intended "amusement" is not responding to e-mail during daily office hours. "NFL Head Coach" is so real it's almost devoid of pleasure. I was drawn to this game because I wanted reality ... which -- as we all know -- is repetitive and hard. This is why we play games in the first place. As is so often the case, what I "want" is the opposite of what I want. For whatever the reason, we have all been convinced that authenticity means everything. We all see a vast difference between preseason NFL games and regular-season NFL games because the former are universally viewed as mere exhibitions. Yet here is the inescapable truth: ALL FOOTBALL GAMES ARE EXHIBITIONS. They are all inorganic constructions. Nothing is ever at stake. But we all choose to make some of them fake and some of them real, because that is our nature.
This is why my fantasy football league probably won't last through 2010.
You know, I bet Baudrillard would draft Sebastian Janikowski in the first round. I really, truly believe that.
Chuck Klosterman is the author of "Killing Yourself to Live: 85% of a True Story" and is a columnist for Esquire and a regular contributor to Page 2.