My former landlord, Jack Paskell, is the most tormented fantasy football fanatic I’ve ever known. When I met the 55-year-old realtor from Cleveland in 2013 to sign a lease for the spare room I was renting in his L.A. home, he had a 65-inch big screen TV in his living room surrounded by eight smaller TVs to monitor his team. “I get enjoyment when one of my guys goes off,” he breathlessly explained. “If he scores I need to witness it, y’know? I need to.”
A cornucopia of wires appeared to be strangling a nearby halogen lamp, each connected to a separate cable box. Yes, he was aware of the NFL Sunday Ticket Mix Channel, which simultaneously displayed eight games at once, but found the individual screens to be too small given that he needed to also study players who weren’t on his team. “I’ll think, Wow, that wideout looks good. Maybe I’ll pick him up next week,” he told me while adjusting the volume on two of the TVs. “I’m not really enjoying watching the games, I’m just studying the whole time.”
I wondered if he realized he’d just admitted to not enjoying any of this, but he pressed on.
“Tuesday is waivers night,” he continued, referring to the tense, weekly selection of available players. Being a realtor allowed Jack to listen to fantasy football podcasts all day while visiting properties. At 6 p.m. on Tuesdays, though, he stopped everything and focused entirely on the waiver wire until midnight, when all the claims were processed. Then he was up again at 5 a.m. to sift through the leftovers. “So on Wednesday I’m usually going on three hours sleep, burnt out from Tuesday’s hell.”
I had played fantasy football with my high school friends for more than a decade — even won a championship in 2005 — but had never met anyone as obsessed as Jack. So I was stunned to learn, later that year, that he’d abruptly quit.
“I’m dating this girl, and I don’t want to be doing all this with her,” he explained, waving at the wall of television sets. They were likely moving to Florida, he said, and he needed to focus on selling our house. Lying to his stunned league, he blamed his early retirement from fantasy football on medical issues. “I said I was worried about an upcoming back surgery and didn’t need the extra tension, but honestly, it was really about this chick, who I thought was the love of my life.”
Kimberly Young, a licensed psychologist and internationally known expert on internet addiction, tells me there’s not much difference between Jack and the tweens she sees who are addicted to Fortnite, the online survival game where 100 players fight against each other for hours to be the last one standing. Many online addictions, Young says, stem from a desperate need to control an outcome, which can easily disrupt things offline. “When I see cases of fantasy football addiction, it’s usually couples dealing with problems in their marriage.”
Presumably that’s what my friend Brendan Piper, 40, was trying to avoid when he quit our fantasy football league shortly before proposing to his girlfriend a couple years ago. Mostly though, he explains, as someone who considered himself to be extremely knowledgeable about football, it was the dumb luck element of fantasy that drove him into retirement. “There didn’t seem to be a correlation between your football expertise and winning in fantasy,” he explains. “It was just a crapshoot, and if that’s the case, I realized I might as well just put $50 bucks on a game I care about every Sunday as opposed to sweating the Cleveland/Kansas City game because I had some bullshit vested interest in the third-string wide receiver.”
Brendan says he also didn’t like what fantasy was doing to him karmically. “I began to hate — and deeply resent — guys who were just out there doing their job. They don’t know they were involved with my stupid fucking fantasy league. They were just doing their best to support a wife and five kids in Scranton, and I was wishing them dead. It was ugly and made me feel like a piece of shit.”
When he quit our league, I remember it being met with a combination of confusion and sympathy. Wait, we wondered, what are you gonna do on Sundays? “Live my life,” he responded. “If I’m interested in a football game, I’ll watch it. If I wanna gamble on it, I’ll do that. The only difference is I won’t be writing one of you a check for $300 at the end of the year. That’s how it’s gonna work out, I suspect.”
Ironically, it was Brendan’s wife Brittany, 36, who had more difficulty extracting herself from the fantasy football league she’s been in with co-workers since 2009. Last year, while six months pregnant with her first son, she responded to an email announcing the date, time and location of a live draft — in which everyone must be physically present and choose players in person — by explaining that since she was the only female in the league, and likely would be going into labor during the season, she didn’t have the bandwidth or mental space to play fantasy football anymore and needed to quit.
“Absolutely the fuck not,” the commissioner responded, explaining why Brittany needed fantasy football more than her maternal mental health and that they’d schedule the draft around her. A few months later, she had just given birth in the hospital when she received an angry email explaining that her league dues hadn’t been received yet. She responded that she had, in fact, paid, and suggested the treasurer may have used it to pay for the CrossFit gym he wouldn’t shut up about.
Either way, she didn’t make the playoffs this season because she was “learning how to keep a human alive,” but anticipates playing again next year. “I’m not allowed to leave,” she says with a sigh. “So I guess I’ll do it forever.”
That wasn’t a fate my cousin David Smith, 43, was willing to accept. Like Jack, David’s been known to become obsessed with trivial things, including fantasy football. “I was in deep,” he explains, noting that the game completely overtook his life. As such, he wasted money on subscriptions to fantasy guides and hours he couldn’t spare from a burgeoning banking career. So he cut the cord and hasn’t looked back since. (Except for the occasional Monday, when he’ll glance at a running back’s swollen stats and think, Bet whoever has that guy had a good fantasy weekend.)
“If you don’t like doing something and you don’t have to do it, stop doing it,” Drew Magary recently counseled a reader nervous about retiring from his fantasy league. “That’s a fairly obvious piece of advice, but it’s amazing how long and how often people will do shit they don’t want to do. That’s a very guy thing, to be embarrassed by your own personal preferences, and to actively shield yourself from them. Happens to me all the time. I’ve stayed in fantasy leagues years past enjoying it because being in a league was the guy thing to do.”
It was the opposite for Jack, however. Unlike everyone above, time off from fantasy football only made him more anxious. Or “miserable,” as he puts it, because he felt like all of his expert insight was being wasted. Then, as luck would have it, the relationship that inspired him to quit in the first place fizzled halfway through the season. “I said to myself, Fuck, not only did I lose her but now I’ve lost my spot in the league! I was very angry and resentful that I made that decision.”
That unceasing compulsion, Dr. Young says, is the reason people wary of their fantasy football habit need to make a clean break. “When I tell clients there’s an abstinence component, they tell me they’ll just cut back,” she says. “Many think they can have just that one cigarette, but it doesn’t work like that. They can’t cut back. It’s an all-consuming activity.”
As it proved to be for Jack, who joined a new league with guys at work and made the playoffs this season, which culminate this weekend. He’s tried to cut back, but says he simply can’t. “A friend of mine suggested limiting fantasy football to an hour before work. But then I’ll have a thought in my head all day and not be able to concentrate. And what if I hear so-and-so go hurt at 2 p.m. and his substitute is available on the waiver wire? I’d miss out on that opportunity and wouldn’t be able to live with myself.
“I admit it, I’m obsessed with fantasy football — and I’ll never quit again.”