Like the cliché ending of a sports movie, the clock ticked down, one second at a time, until it read zero — a close 27–20 game between the Houston Texans and Kansas City Chiefs now complete. The winning team, the Chiefs, ran onto the field in jubilation. I, however, laid my face on the bar, my eyes closed and my forehead tapping out an SOS on the sticky wooden surface: Thump. Thump. Thump.
I wasn’t alone in my misery. A bearded thirtysomething guy in a Dodgers cap was in disbelief, too. He pointed to his phone, and then to me: “You too?”
I had lost my Week 1 fantasy football matchup by two-tenths of a point, or 104.22 to 104.20. “One more yard from Jamaal Charles, fuhhhhHHHCK!” I screamed in the car on the way home. The annoyance sat with me, festering, all night. The rage came flooding back later in the season when I missed the playoff tournament by one win.
“Fantasy football can eat shit,” I vowed.
That vow didn’t last long, however. When the preseason kicked off in August, I couldn’t help but dust off my spreadsheet with the research and stats I used to prep for my fantasy league draft. Per usual, my annoyance and rage from the previous season had given way to optimism: Of course, I’d do better this year. How could I not? I didn’t get a single break last season. And look at how prepared I am! THIS WILL BE MY YEAR.
“Many mild-mannered people become something else in a mob of sports fans,” John Callaghan, an expert on sports psychology at the University of Southern California, tells me when I ask about why I can’t seem to act rationally when fantasy football season rolls around every year. “Fantasy football does that, but with even more competition and motivation for the game within the game.”
Here, Callaghan is alluding to the money involved in fantasy leagues. The gambling aspect is typically a huge draw — e.g., 70 percent of players reported paying into a league pot, with an average of $556 spent annually by players, per the Fantasy Sports Trade Association.
My main 10-person league, however, has a comparatively modest $100 per player fee, with the winner taking home around $700. The temptation to swell the pot is a point of discussion every season — for purposes of added “competitiveness” and “motivation.” But at least for me, money isn’t the main motivating factor. It’s actually much more personal: Victories feel earned, a mark of my intelligence, skill and preparation, while losses feel like a failure, a giant waste of my time and energy.
It turns out there’s a name for what I’m feeling every Sunday: “Basking in Reflected Glory.” A 1976 study shows it’s the reason why football fans experience a boost in self-esteem the day after their team wins. “Through their simple connections with sports teams, the personal images of fans are at stake when their team is taking the field,” the study’s authors wrote. “The team’s victories and defeats are reacted to as personal successes and failures.”
I like to think this is the reason why I act so unhinged during games — and not because, you know, I’m actually unhinged. But I’ve posted Facebook messages and tweets half-jokingly wishing harm on players that fucked up my score, only to sheepishly delete them a few hours later. And more than once, I’ve hopped on the couch like Tom Cruise on Oprah as an opposing player writhed on the ground in pain. (Guilt always followed such instances, with knowing glances to my friends followed by a communal half-apology: “Fantasy is the worst, right?”)
Most of all, I love watching games with my fantasy opponents/friends next to me when I’m winning, feeling ruthless and clever when they squirm as their players fail and mine rack up huge point totals.
My physiology also ebbs and flows with the highs of winning and the lows of losing — a mix of euphoria (on the winning side of things) and headaches, stomachaches and carelessly punched walls (on the losing side of things). Again, research suggests it’s not just in my own head. For example, according to a 2013 study published in the journal Psychological Science, fans on average ate 16 percent more saturated fat on Monday after their football team lost. On the flip side, winning fans felt compelled to eat 9 percent fewer saturated fats, apparently because watching your quarterback throw touchdown passes decreases the desire to find solace in mozzarella sticks.
“When your ego is shattered, you really think about instant gratification — you want to feel better, now,” Pierre Chandon, a co-writer of the study, told NPR when it was released.
The irony is that stress is much less harmful if you have some control over the situation. But while fantasy players might think they have control — isn’t that the reason for all of my spreadsheets? — they often don’t. Players get hurt, drop passes and underperform with epic randomness. “The perception of skill [in fantasy sports] has led many, many people down a very dark path,” Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, told the New York Times last year.
I’ve pretended like the losses don’t bother me, but it’s a lie I’ve since abandoned. My previous girlfriend would sometimes nudge me at dinner and ask why I’m quietly frowning at the wall. Other times, I found myself staring at half-finished work on Monday, feeling hungover from the previous day’s emotional outburst. It’s not like I was replaying the matchups in my head, but I couldn’t shake it.
So a week ago, I tried to give up fantasy football cold turkey. Or better put, I tried to give up the 10 hours I spent each Sunday in front of my TV, watching every game I could while obsessively checking all of my fantasy stats on my iPhone. Instead, I woke up, took a shower, made coffee, strummed the guitar for a half-hour, roamed a farmers market with a friend and checked out an exhibit at a downtown L.A. art gallery.
At one point later in the afternoon, my friend poked me in the ribs. “You must be annoyed that we’re not watching football right now, huh?” she asked.
I hadn’t checked my phone all afternoon. It usually felt like a phantom limb. But not on this day. “No, actually. I feel great,” I told her.
I also won.
And because I can’t shake the guilty feeling that I’ll be left behind later in the season for not being as committed as before, I’ve decided to convince myself that my detached Sundays are the exact reason I’m succeeding. A kinder, gentler strategy and/or coping mechanism? Maybe. But an irrational one all the same.