Beating Yourself Takes New Meaning

Chris Cooley had four fantasy football teams last season.
Chris Cooley had four fantasy football teams last season. "I just like to do it with my friends," he said. (By John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)
By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 13, 2006

The greatest game of tight end Chris Cooley's career came at his expense.

Cooley collected three touchdown passes last December as the Washington Redskins pounded arch-rival Dallas, 35-7, at FedEx Field to fuel their first successful playoff march since 1999. It was the highlight of his second NFL season and cause for serious celebration, but a few days later Cooley realized one of his fantasy football teams was knocked out of the playoffs because of that performance.

"I had four teams last year," Cooley said, "and I made the playoffs with one and honestly lost because I beat myself against Dallas. The guy on the other team had me, and I scored three touchdowns against Dallas, and I lost to myself on fantasy points."

The defeat was an easy blow for Cooley, 24, to overcome under the circumstances and is another indication of the growing popularity of fantasy football. No other Redskin admitted to playing fantasy football, and Cooley said he was unaware of any his teammates doing so, but every player approached had at least some story of how fantasy sports have touched their lives. Whether it be calls for injury reports or draft tips, participation in non-football fantasy leagues or stories of fantasy glory from their amateur days, most Redskins have been drawn into fantasy nation in at least an ancillary manner.

"Maybe it's like an NFL secret that you play fantasy football," Cooley said. "I don't think a lot of guys are too into it, but I try to keep playing because my friends do it and stuff. But it's hard for me every Sunday to really care about what happens to my fantasy team. I kind of goof around. I just like to do it with my friends."

The NFL has no regulations barring active players from participating in fantasy football, league officials said, and if anything, the sport's overseers are supporting the leisure activity like never before. Although it is widely accepted that money -- and sometimes substantial sums -- are involved in most leagues, NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said players are not warned about playing and that the league draws a strict delineation between fantasy sports and betting on games.

"As far as our players' participation is concerned, it's highly unlikely a player who participates in fantasy football would alter his performance on the field," McCarthy said. "We're certainly aware that some fans play for money -- and on there are prizes available like a trip to the Super Bowl -- but fantasy football is a game of skill, and gambling is not."

McCarthy said 10 million Americans take part in fantasy football each NFL weekend, and the appeal is widespread among all demographic groups. Actors Jennifer Garner and Jim Belushi are in leagues. NFL stars like Ed Reed and Priest Holmes took part in a nonprofit league a few years ago, and former Redskin Shawn Barber is a fantasy football advocate, while Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling is a devotee and future Hall of Fame outfielder Tony Gwynn has been a league commissioner.

The NFL filmed a recent set of television spots with wide receiver Braylon Edwards, place kicker Neil Rackers and quarterback Chris Simms doing various tricks with the football and urging fans to select them in their fantasy drafts. The NFL Network sponsors a celebrity league, and last year the league entered into a reported five-year, $600 million deal with Sprint that was driven at least in part because of fantasy sports, allowing subscribers to draft and monitor their teams with their cellphones.

McCarthy believes the league's continued soaring popularity, television ratings and merchandising sales are not unrelated to pervasive culture of fantasy football. The number of fantasy football magazines is staggering, and mainstream television and print media -- The Washington Post included -- are devoting precious space to the hobby regularly.

"The proliferation of media and ancillary industries associated with it surprises the league, but not necessarily the popularity of fantasy football itself," McCarthy said.

So even for the majority of Redskins who have never drafted a player in their lives, there is no escaping the reach of fantasy football. Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs, who has no idea how the fantasy game operates, gets deluged with questions from fans about which of his players to draft, and, as a NASCAR team owner, hears from race fans looking for insight on up-and-coming drivers.

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