In another installment of our award-winning "heartfelt features" series, which perfects the long-standing journalistic tradition of writing dramatically about some stuff, we examine the damage fantasy sports is doing to American society. Today's story is Part One of a three-part series.
Doug McAvoy, 29, can't pick up the phone and give Jason Schulters a call, even if he wants to.
Any hopes of a redemptive moment, a heart-to-heart initiated by one side of this bizarre standoff, were deleted along with Schulters' phone number when McAvoy wiped it from his address book.
"I don't know any of these numbers by heart, so if they're not in my phone, then I don't know them," McAvoy said, smiling as he perused a list of American League sleepers on one of several fantasy sports Web sites he frequents. "I'm sure I could get the number from someone if I really wanted it. But I knew when I erased him that I would never want to speak to him again. And so far, that's still the way it is."
They are a troubling cautionary tale, in a world where fantasy sports have become a staple in the lives of countless Americans, including what seems like the majority of males ages 18-35. As the trend reaches its pinnacle in the new millennium, so does the higher frequency of unhealthy abuse, and borderline obsession.
"It creates a fantastic environment for people, and sometimes the borders between fantasy and reality are blurred," said Dr. Mitchell Marbles, a Stanford University professor who has studied the effects of fantasy sports on society. "There is a lot of strategy and role playing, which can be beneficial, but there is also a high quotient of egoism and hyper-masculinity, and sometimes that can be very explosive."
Fantasy sports is at the center of the estranged relationship between McAvoy and Schulters. Some view the game as harmless fun. Others view it as the new Dungeons and Dragons, embracing a new kind of nerd. But others see it as one of the most destructible forces in modern America. Like poverty, only digital.DAWN OF AN OBSESSION
Schulters and McAvoy were inseparable in college, both coming off the bench for the Sandusky State baseball team and spending hours playing baseball together and rooming together. They shared a fandom of the Cleveland Indians, and often attended games at Jacobs Field.
"Sports is common ground for a lot of guys," Schulters said, sipping his malt liquor as he watched the first round of NCAA Tournament. "For Doug and me, sports was as important as anything. People say you should care more about politics and what's going on overseas and stuff like that, but I can't do it. To me, ESPN will always be more important than CNN or C-SPAN."
Schulters watches his game with a keen eye, having involved himself in two separate "NCAA player drafts," which rewards the competitor with the most combined points among 10 drafted players in the tourney. He estimates he participates in 16-20 fantasy sports teams each year.
As juniors in college, Schulters said he and McAvoy joined their first fantasy baseball league, a crudely-organized creation operated by one of the duo's dorm neighbors.
"We were into it right from the get-go, but Yahoo! Sports was just getting started and this guy kept a lot of the stats by hand," Schulters said. "We thought he was crazy, but it was a lot of fun. We would trade superstars like nothing, never thinking twice, because it was such a new thing. We were just having a good time with it."
By the time Schulters and McAvoy graduated, fantasy leagues began cropping up regularly on Internet sites, and participation began to spike. In order to stay in touch with some friends from school, Schulters coordinated a "dynasty league," in which three players were kept by each team from year to year.
"For a couple years, that league was one of the coolest things I'd been a part of," McAvoy said. "We ended up creating a league for the same eight guys in three different sports -- football, basketball, and baseball -- and we even had traveling plaques for the winners. It was a hobby of ours. We were all really into it, and that made it something special."
Both men admit they found themselves preoccupied with fantasy sports a lot. Schulters was warned by his boss at work for checking fantasy updates on his office computer too frequently, and McAvoy began subscribing to several fantasy sports newsletters, and even writing one of his own. He joined four other football leagues for fun each year, often with the intention of dominating lesser-skilled players in "open" leagues, in which a mostly anonymous collection of owners took part.
"I played in a lot of leagues, but nothing compared to the college one," McAvoy said. "That was my only keeper league, and it's the one that I considered the major league. All the other leagues were just tuneups and goofing around."
The college league -- affectionately referred to as the Sandusky Oldschool Fantasy Association (SOFA) -- ultimately became the wrench that tore apart this friendship.FRIENDS NO MORE
Both men married their college sweethearts three years after graduation, and both served as best man in the other's wedding. They bought houses not far from campus, two towns over, and lived within a mile of each other. Most weekends were spent playing cards or going out to dinner with spouses in tow, and the women would generally talk about the events of the day while the men discussed -- what else -- fantasy sports.
But in 2006, something went wrong. McAvoy was coming off a spectacular fantasy football campaign, in which the running back tandem of LaDainian Tomlinson and Larry Johnson had led him to an easy league championship. McAvoy had used a late draft pick the year before to get Johnson, who was suddenly thrust into fantasy stardom after an injury to Chiefs' teammate Priest Holmes, and McAvoy kept both superstars heading into a record-setting 2006.
"We gave him his props -- he built that team fair and square and it was great that he had so much success," Schulters said. "The buy-in was up to $100, so he made about $700 out of the deal. I was happy for him, but it's no fun if someone has all the power."
Shrewd trades had given McAvoy an unstoppable keeper assembly of Peyton Manning and Antonio Gates to accompany Tomlinson and Johnson, and other members of the league came to Schulters asking that the league go back to "re-draft" status, allowing everyone to draft anew and throw keepers back into the general pot.
"They just wanted the playing field to be leveled a little bit," Schulters said. "I could totally understand -- I mean, who wants to fork over $100 when it looks like they have no chance in hell of winning? Doug's a great guy, but he gloats a lot when he's ahead, and I think it was just becoming a bit unbearable. Guys were threatening to back out, and I didn't want to lose the league, so I made a decision."
Realizing the move would greatly disappoint McAvoy and force him to surrender the players that had allowed him to win back-to-back league titles, Schulters put the "re-draft" concept to vote and it passed, 7-1.
"Football didn't just re-organize itself because the New England Patriots won a bunch of Super Bowls," McAvoy said. "Baseball doesn't just call a do-over because the Yankees have all the power. I put in all the hard work and sweat and foresight, and I was getting penalized because I was too good. It's not fair."
For the first time since college, the format of the SOFA changed, and McAvoy was the most outspoken opponent.
"People look at that $100 dollar entry fee and say it's a small price to pay for fun," McAvoy said. "Well I look at that $700 as a mortgage payment. They're stealing money out of my pocket. Once you start messing with my finances, then I get really upset."
McAvoy confronted Schulters when the men and their wives went out to dinner the following weekend. He pushed his former best friend to the ground and was asked to leave by restaurant management. His wife didn't speak to him for several days, but he responded the way he always did to newfound stress -- by pouring over rankings, cheat sheets, draft strategies and anything else that reminded him of fantasy sports.
"Fantasy sports is kind of a sanctuary for me," he said. "It's what I'm good at, and it's like listening to soothing music or watching your favorite television program. It helps me relax. When it gets taken out from under me like that, it makes me feel really alone and angry. I know that's hard for a lot of people to understand."THE DISABLED LIST
A rift has developed between these two men, one that McAvoy says will never be repaired. Schulters hopes he's wrong, but he's not knocking down McAvoy's door, either.
"I was really irritated at first, because I felt like he was crossing that line where fantasy sports shouldn't interfere with real life," Schulters said. "But our league is better off without him, really. It's more laid-back now -- guys don't have to worry that they're going to get a call at 2 a.m. from Doug, and get badgered about making a trade before finally agreeing so they could go back to sleep."
Schulters also said McAvoy could not have a normal conversation without referencing fantasy sports, and so it wasn't a big deal when McAvoy and his wife moved several towns away, or when a series of DVDs on loan from McAvoy suddenly disappeared from Schulters' living room, with the back door left broken in.
"It would get to the point where I'd want to talk about his wife, and he's say 'She's fine, but did you see what Manny Ramirez did yesterday?' Schulters said. "The guy just doesn't know when to stop. Sometimes, you have to let people like that go."
Labels: Heartfelt features