On Reconciling Fantasy (Football) and Reality

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Courtesy of Roto Street Journal

Courtesy of Roto Street Journal

Courtesy of Roto Street Journal

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When Minnesota Vikings rookie running back Dalvin Cook tore his ACL in October, it didn’t immediately strike me that his career could be in jeopardy, or that at the very least, he might never be able to compete at the same level again. Instead, I thought about how his injury was likely going to cost me a win in my fantasy football league that week.

I’ve been an avid fantasy football player for six years, and while I’ve enjoyed the way it keeps me connected to family and friends (as well as my six-year playoff streak), I often struggle with how I handle players on my team suffering injuries. I know the first thing I should consider is the hardship that player is enduring, but I can’t help thinking about how I’ve been inconvenienced by the injury, too.

Even more disconcerting is the way I’ve reacted when opposing players sustain injuries. I’ve actually felt a sense of relief after seeing a player on my opponent’s team limp gingerly towards the sideline or even to the locker room after a crushing tackle, since that meant I’d have a better chance to win.

All of this might seem ridiculous, and frankly, when I take a step back, it seems absurd to me, too. But in the heat of the moment, the line between fantasy and reality can become difficult to distinguish.

Part of the issue is that fantasy football is exactly what it sounds like — fantasy. It’s nothing more than a game that keeps me occupied on Sunday afternoons, as I hope the players I drafted score more touchdowns and gain more yards than my opponent’s. If they do, I’m one step closer to winning a fair amount of spending money, and more notably, bragging rights within the Rick Ankiel Fantasy Football League. But if they don’t, I live to play another week.

But Sunday afternoons mean exponentially more to the players on the field who fight for every yard and first down to lead their team to victory, or even to keep their spot on the roster. NFL players lose no sleep wondering whether they’ve helped a fantasy owner — whom they’ve never met, and likely never will — beat a high-school friend or coworker, so long as their actual team comes away with a victory.

This disconnect is amplified when players get injured. Because I’m so far removed from the game itself, players become names on a screen rather than actual people. I sometimes forget that a torn ACL signifies much more than a tally in the loss column. For running backs and wide receivers, torn ligaments or broken bones can jeopardize their careers and require months of grueling rehabilitation, not to mention the emotional strain that lingers after a severe injury. While I can bounce back the next week, athletes are often not so lucky.

Watching Dalvin Cook’s injury live is a prime example of this detachment. In the midst of the best game of his young career, he abruptly dropped to the field, clutching his left knee. In that instant, Cook went from a name in my running-back slot to a human being whose pain I couldn’t help but sympathize with. Though I thought initially of my own team, it didn’t take long for me to recognize the gravity of the situation.

Yet instead of expressing compassion for injured players like Cook, fans berate and complain about them on Twitter and Facebook for getting hurt — something entirely out of their control — which only heightens the tension between fantasy football owners and NFLers. In fact, Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman criticized fantasy owners for their lack of empathy after a game in October, during which four of his teammates left the game with various injuries, one of them life-threatening.

At the very least, I’m comforted by the fact that I’m able to put everything into perspective fairly quickly, which is the most important aspect of any fantasy sport or betting game. I understand that an injury is far more devastating to a player himself than it could ever be to Team Millin, and I’d never take to social media to chastise an athlete for sustaining an injury.

Perhaps perspective is the best solution. As Hobbes claimed, human beings are naturally selfish, and it’s unlikely that I’ll ever ignore my own thoughts or circumstances when a player gets hurt, as unfortunate as that may be. But keeping the bigger picture in sight is the closest I can get to reconciling fantasy (football) and reality.

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