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Zen and the Art of Fantasy Football

A memoir of the (fantasy) sporting life

Cindy Ord/Stringer/Getty

Fantasy sports stories are like dreams: Everybody wants to talk about their own, and nobody wants to hear anyone else’s. Why is this so? We love hearing most stories, even when they ostensibly have nothing to do with us. Dreams, though, are so idiosyncratic that another person rarely finds anything of interest. Fantasy stories, too, vibrate distinctly. You and I may both own Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, but the surrounding circumstances—how the rest of our rosters did, how our opponents did, how recently we broke up with our girlfriends—are invariably so divergent that they dissolve any solidarity we might otherwise share.1

In his new book, Fantasy Life: The Outrageous, Uplifting, and Heartbreaking World of Fantasy Sports from the Guy Who's Lived It, Matthew Berry tries to dissolve the barrier between the type of story that alienates with its specificity and the type that appeals to universal human impulses. The book is structured as a memoir with many, many random people’s fantasy sports stories interspersed throughout. The memoir tells of Berry ditching one career for another, being frustrated with his bosses (and then slyly superseding them), pursuing his dream, and landing roughly where he belongs: as ESPN’s senior fantasy sports analyst. 

So, caveat emptor, certainly; this is a complex book that probably didn’t need to be. Berry could have written a primer on fantasy sports. (If you’ve never played fantasy, don’t bother with the book—way too much prior knowledge is assumed.) He could have written a history of fantasy, tracing its ascent from an arcane hobby (started by journalists who met at Manhattan’s La Rotisserie Française) to emblem of sports-geek culture to, now, obsessive diversion in which 13 percent of Americans participate. Berry could have written a high-minded examination of fantasy’s effect on fandom, or on how it has helped the National Football League become the media powerhouse it is today. There is probably nobody better qualified to pen such books.

Berry claims he is primarily a writer of “long egocentric stories that seemed random but ended up being a lesson about fantasy analysis.” But he winds up giving us something like the reverse: a series of short fantasy yarns that eventually hope to amount to a single egocentric lesson about real life. The dozens of anecdotes overwhelm the single, long egocentric story, and the connections between them are tenuous at best. A discussion of bad fantasy trades segues into Berry getting fired from one job. A few stories about “swing plays”—for example, the touchdown unexpectedly scored by the back-up running back—transitions to the time Berry got one of his big breaks as a fantasy analyst on the defunct ESPN morning show “Cold Pizza.” My bet is that even the most avid fantasy players will skim many of these tales, and, in the process, lose track of the central story.

Which is a shame, because it’s pretty good. We follow Berry from a lonely boyhood as the only Jewish kid in his class in Texas; to college at Syracuse; to Hollywood, where one of his first big breaks was writing for “Married ... With Children” and one of his biggest disappointments involved the script for the third Crocodile Dundee movie; to his slow construction of a fantasy mini-empire in the early 2000s, in which he simply started writing about his hobby and found a readership outside of the traditional media ecosystem of gatekeepers and validators; to, finally, the resource-rich bosom of ESPN. In his personal life, meanwhile, there is a marriage, a divorce, and then a storybook happy ending.

While Berry writes with a conversational flair, his sure sense of the fantasy-dude vernacular can lead him to give voice to some pretty unenlightened views. It is one thing to relate the story of a guy who liquored up his girlfriend while they were vacationing in Italy so that he could be free for his league’s draft.2 It’s another thing not to observe the problems with this, much less to note, “That’s right. Jacob became the first man in history to get a girl drunk to not sleep with her.” Um, high five?

But one shouldn’t just dismiss Fantasy Life as troglodytic wallowing in the worst aspects of bro-dom or solipsistic reverie. Berry aims higher than that—and sometimes he gets there. A few of the stories are moving (the guy who sets his lineup while on chemo), funny-sad (the guy who emerged from an induced coma to ask, “Did I get Romo?”), and, once or twice, sublime. In one story, Maurice Jones-Drew, the accomplished Jacksonville Jaguars running back who was playing in a league with the Chicago Bears’ Matt Forte, implored Forte, “You gotta trade me for me,” all for the sake of Jones-Drew's roster. This masterfully explains this pastime’s oddly Marxist implications—in which millions of fantasy “owners” benefit from others’ labor, and a player can experience something like a reversal of estrangement by “owning” himself. (Or maybe the implications are merely Derridean—we don’t, after all, own the players, only their statistics.) And your desire to know what happens to Berry (the non-fantasy story, of course) keeps you from skipping full pages. Other than its sappy ending—which is so, well, fantastical it seems almost impossible (nonetheless: mazel tov on the twins!)—Berry’s autobiography is gripping.

Moreover, Fantasy Life contains an important insight about the appeal of fantasy sports and the balance between control and chance. The joys and frustrations of fantasy come through exercising a great deal of control over your experience, only then to give it up. You smartly sit a wide receiver when his team’s starting left tackle is out; you cleverly play a running back when his team is likely to blow out its opponent in the hopes that he will get more points from garbage-time yardage. Sometimes your reasoning is strong and you are rewarded; sometimes your reasoning is strong and something flukey happens and you are not rewarded; sometimes your opponent’s reasoning is weak and he gets lucky and beats you anyway. C’est la vie. “All you can do is make the best possible choice, taking every factor into account and letting the game unfold,” Berry sagely shrugs. “This is as good a piece of fantasy advice as you’ll ever hear: Ask yourself what is most likely to happen, play the odds that give yourself the most likely chance to win, and hope for the best.” He adds, “And it’s good advice for life.”

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic. Follow him @marcatracy.

  1. Let’s keep this quick: In fantasy sports—or, lately, Fantasy Congress and fantasy movie studio—you compete with others in your “league” by having certain real-life players on your “team”; their real-life statistics accrue to your team. The team with the better statistics on a given week, or over a given season, wins.

  2. A draft is when you select your team’s players at the beginning of the season