On Friendship and Fantasy Sports
I received a text from a friend of mine the other day. Let’s call him Vince.
“Hey, do you have five minutes to talk on the phone?”
Vince isn’t a close friend; we’ve only met in person several times. So when he texted me, I was concerned, partially because we don’t speak very often, and partially because I was pretty sure I knew what the call would be about.
I love sports. I’ve loved sports for as long as I can remember. I had an “uncle” (not a relative, but one of those family friends who you call uncle) who spent way too much of his retired life sitting in his den, chain smoking and watching baseball on TV. When I was at his house, if I promised to be quiet, I was allowed to sit there with my Coca-Cola (NO SPILLING) and watch along with him. Sitting there in that den, I was pretty sure he had life all figured out.
Although my opinions on how I hope to one day spend my retirement have changed, that love of sports has never left me. I played every sport my parents would allow. I would run outside when I heard the paper arrive in the afternoon, so I could tear it open and read the box scores. I watched whatever games I could catch in our cable-free home. I would try to order everything in the Scholastic Book Fair catalogue that was even remotely adjacent to sports, before being told I could only get two. There was a period of time where I spent literally all of my money on baseball cards, a financial investment that I am still waiting on to pay out.
By the time I got to high school, there was a new sports-related activity to occupy my time: fantasy sports, over the internet. This was tricky, because at our school computer lab, games were forbidden. So to help facilitate our league’s ability to play (as not everyone had internet at home yet), several of us secured part-time jobs as lab monitors, and we would let our friends know when we were on duty, providing everyone in our league the opportunity to check their lineups without the danger of being kicked out and banned for the day.
In the decades since, I’ve continued to play fantasy sports. It has kept me in touch with friends I don’t get to see very often. It has given me a shared language with people I might never have talked to otherwise, providing a foundation for new friendships. It is even directly responsible for my presence here, as I first met some of the Pajiba overlords through fantasy football. Without question, fantasy sports has had a net positive effect on my life.
And I’m not sure I want to do it anymore.
I answered the phone, and after Vince told me about his most recent adventures in parenthood, he began to vent to me about our fantasy baseball league, and in particular, his interaction with a mutual friend of ours who is what could charitably be called aggressively competitive; others would say he was being an asshole.
None of this was surprising, as a recent discussion between Vince and our mutual friend on our league-wide email thread had grown heated. What was surprising, however, was how calm Vince sounded on the other end of the line.
This was not a call made in anger. This was a call made in sadness.
I listened as Vince described what he had endured over the course of the season; constant messages badgering him about trading one player or another. Text chains that went well beyond trash talk. Conversations that quickly pivoted into arguments and defensiveness and anger. The interactions were so frustrating and painful that they had legitimately damaged the bond between Vince and our mutual friend.
I apologized for not doing more as league commissioner, for not noticing the problem sooner. I asked if there was an opportunity to heal this rift, but it was clear that Vince had come to a decision before he texted me. Life was too short, and even though the league brought him tremendous joy, the frustration of dealing with our mutual friend was too much. Vince would be leaving the league at the conclusion of the season.
I told him I understood. We both wished each other well, understanding that without the fantasy league binding us together, we probably wouldn’t see each other very often, and we hung up.
I love the competition aspect of fantasy sports. I love that it’s a relatively low-impact way for me to get my competitive fix, as my skills in other arenas of competition, like slow-pitch softball or flag football or video game football begin to fade. But my conversation with Vince reminded me that it’s all too easy for any of us to take competition too far, to bring things out of the game and into real life. It reminded me that it’s all too easy for real consequences to spring out of what should be a fun distraction among friends.
In the days since that phone call, I’ve been thinking about whether I’m still enjoying fantasy sports, or if it has become, like other hobbies sometimes have, more of an obligation, something I’m doing out of habit, rather than actual enjoyment.
I’m fortunate in that I love what I do for a living, although that, combined with my workaholic tendencies, means I never have enough time for all the extra-curricular activities I’d like to pursue. Which means I am constantly prioritizing, constantly evaluating whether or not I could be doing something better with my time.
I don’t have an answer yet; it’s too soon, and besides, it’s August, which is the busy season for those of us who play fantasy sports. After all, August is when fantasy football leagues start.
Thanks to fantasy football, I will get to see friends, some of whom I only see this time of year, brought together by a love of sports, and competition, and friendly razzing. I will get on a conference call, I will go to a brewery at ten in the morning, I will travel for a weekend and share a vacation rental with friends from around the country. All of this is great fun, and I am thankful that it is a part of my life.
But I will also be thinking about Vince, and his falling out with our mutual friend. I will be thinking about what I could have done to keep this from happening, and what changes I can make to keep it from happening again. I will weigh the balance of how much fantasy sports has brought to my life against the damage it has done, maybe permanent, to a friendship.
And, for the first time, I will begin to calculate for myself when enough is enough; when the competition is no longer worth the cost; when I, too, will decide that life is too short.
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