Confession of an NFL Puppetmaster

My brother and I usually watch NFL games, especially the Philadelphia Eagles together, but this Sunday as the Eagles take on the Denver Broncos, I’ll be watching alone. Three games into the season, the Broncos, led by decorated quarterback and commercial darling, Peyton Manning, are the best team in the league and are roundly expected to trample our flailing, failing Eagles.

But that’s not the issue. As Philadelphia sports fans, we are used to failure. Part of the fun of being an Eagles fan is the unique marriage of catharsis and masochism. The problem is that Peyton Manning happens to be the quarterback of my brother’s fantasy team. To make matters worse, his opponent’s team features Eagles stars Michael Vick and Desean Jackson. My brother is a passionate fan, but perhaps a more passionate fantasy owner. Therefore when the Eagles get off to an early deficit, which they most certainly will, he will transform from an Eagles fan to a Russ fan. He would undoubtedly deny this, but it is guaranteed to happen.

No sir. I will not be a party to this. I prefer cry in my beer alone.

....and on a Sunday too.

….and on a Sunday too.

The illusion of fandom is that you believe your loyalties somehow affect the game’s outcome—an illusion which from Labor Day to Christmas creates countless emotional conflicts and cognitive dissonance for the fantasy player. This is perhaps a function of our 21st century ego which demands a sense of control in order to prevent utter emotional breakdown. Our beliefs in God, Flag, Justice and Love have been compromised. For many, all that’s left is sports, and now even that’s not enough. We have to get into the game by “owning” the players we expect to generate the best statistics. This is the age of college basketball bracketology, online wagering, and Madden NFL video games. Voyeurism isn’t enough.

Once, you could watch a game piecing together a narrative based on irrational, but heroic qualities. The unlikely hero. The fall of the heavy favorite to the scrappy underdog. The veteran workhorse against the brash, fleet-footed talent. A football game was a war destined by the gods to be fought with bravery and stout honor. As fans, we watched under the impression that our very lives were dependent upon its outcome. All these story-lines are still there, but now they seem naïve and sentimental. Now the narrative is defined by statistics, rankings and training so sophisticated that players are no longer human, but finely tuned machines, instructed on every step they take. Every play is an exercise in repetition—an unvarying series of perfected movements. We’ve discovered perfect football. The winner is the team that makes the fewest mistakes.

Only when an injury leaves a player sprawled on the turf do we remember he’s human. The helmet comes off to reveal another frightened twenty-something who doesn’t know what he’s going to do with the rest of his life unless he can get back in the game. Never mind how he’ll handle the irreversible damage his body and brain have incurred. Then there’s horrific injuries to the head or the neck that leave the player unconscious. He is surrounded by trainers and medics, players from both sides gathering around on one knee with looks of dejection and terror on their faces, waiting with millions of people for the moment that they strap him to a backboard and he forces his hand into a thumbs up. “Oh! He’s not dead!” we say with a sigh of relief, secretly hoping he’ll be back on the field next week. We’ve been reminded, yet again, that even NFL players with their superior talents, size and strength, can be destroyed by a single moment during a single play; but soon enough, we’re back to our wings and profanity-laced editorializing. Anything to avoid thinking about the unexpected.

I obsess about my fantasy team at a level that is in no way relative to the literal impact it has on my quality of life or future. I cling to the idea that its success will be a function of the time I spend reading articles, listening to podcasts, and aggregating the advice of fantasy experts and my self-styled fantasy cabinet members with whom I engage in pedantic decision-making.

It’s all a charade. Maybe it helps that Darren McFadden is playing at home or that Alden Smith would rather drive drunk than sack quarterbacks or that CJ Spiller had a thigh contusion instead of more serious ligament damage. But let’s be honest here. For all the work you do, for all the outcomes you anticipate, you still need luck. (Full disclosure, my quarterback is Indianapolis’s Andrew Luck.)

I’ll text Russ when Brent Celek fumbles or when Vick throws a pass into triple coverage…again, and I’ll brace myself for his response about Peyton being on pace to break every passing record in the book. I’ll try to remember that even though the Eagles are my favorite team, they play the same with or without me and even if they lose, there’s always fantasy.

Or a good book.

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