Whatever you do, leave Andy Miley alone on Sundays. He has nine fantasy-football teams to attend to. He has broken up with girlfriends for having the audacity to invite him to brunch. He once paid $400 for an online course on scouting players. He watches every college bowl game to get a jump on an under-the-radar running backs and lineman for his rookie draft. "I don't like relying on other people to get opinions on players," says Miley, 44, an accountant in Gardiner, Maine, who spends roughly 25 hours a week and $1,100 a year on fantasy football. "This is my sickness. My wife calls me 'the farmer,' because I'll go to bed at 8 or 8:30 and I'll wake up at 3 to make sure I'm watching everything."
Most of the 41 million people who play fantasy sports are like Joe Lawrence, an Air Force lieutenant colonel who sporadically checks scores on his tablet in between raising two teen-age boys and, you know, protecting the country. "I probably would do better if I spent a little more time on it," he says. But the Andy Mileys of the world allow themselves to descend beyond love of football into the madness of FGs and PATs, player evaluations and Twitter trash-talk — "awash in the statistical minutia of a game that challenges its players to compose a lineup that will score more fake points than their opponents' fake players," as C.D. Carter wrote in a New York Times essay on fantasy obsession. For them, the fake game is a second job, an escape from dead-end relationships or careers into the precise order of Baltimore Ravens sacks and Calvin Johnson ankle-injury updates.
It's not hard to see how this can be dangerous to your health. Studies show expending too much emotional energy just watching the Jets can raise blood pressure levels, nevermind juggling an entire team of complex statistical avatars.
And when team buy-ins and pay-outs rise, the emotional stakes rise with it. "One of the reasons fantasy sports are popular in the U.S. is because some participants are essentially using it to gamble," says Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling. "The most obvious sign is people who self-identify — 'This is my 15th loss in a row, I can't afford my car anymore.' These are the guys we see with real problems." In recent years, big-money fantasy-football websites have made it easy for owners to shovel Paypal savings into multiple leagues. FanDuel is likely to pay $400 million in winnings this year, and DraftKings has "dozens of people who've won six figures" of an estimated 200,000 team owners, says Matt Kalish, co-founder of the company, which has $75 million in outside investments. That can lead to bad habits — Dr. Timothy Fong, head of UCLA's Gambling Studies Program, said in a 2005 study that fantasy sports were part of an "upswing in gambling's acceptance." Fong, a longtime fantasy football, baseball and golf player, adds: "The line is pretty clear. You shouldn't be fighting with your wife, neglecting your children, dipping into your savings."
Thus does Keith DeVore, a 33-year-old government fiscal analyst, spend 35 to 40 hours a week managing his five fantasy-football teams, once nearly losing his job because his boss caught him checking stats on a work computer. He watches games on five TVs in his Phoenix home. "It's probably pushing past the point of an addiction. No doubt about it," he says. "It's a long-term form of gambling. Instead of putting your money on the table and putting $300 on red, you put $300 on your team." And Mike Porreca, a traveling pharmaceutical salesman in Marlton, New Jersey, keeps track of 20 different teams, as if investing in low-risk mutual funds rather than relying on individual player-stocks. Porreca isn't addicted to fantasy football, he says, because he always comes out ahead: "If you lose all the money, it might be a problem. If I did, I would walk away."
Jeff Schaffer found a way to turn his problem into an opportunity. During a Christmas skiing trip in the French Alps some 10 years ago, he excused himself from a beautiful Sunday-night dinner with his wife to "run to the bathroom." Of course, he wasn't using the facilities — he was standing in the snow, white-knuckled and Skyping friends back home to inquire about his two teams on separate championship runs. Self-aware enough to recognize the absurdity of the scene, the Hollywood screenwriter and his wife, Jackie, created The League, the long-running FX show about players so obsessed with fantasy football that they interrupt sex with their spouses to check on scores and hold drafts during weddings.
Does Schaffer think too much fantasy football is harmful? "No, it's the best!" he says during a Season 7 filming break. "Spoken like a true addict. Why would I stop? 'Yeah, I fell asleep with a needle in my arm — but I woke up.' It's the outlet. The rest of the world's the problem."
In his Times story, Carter suggested the birth of his child might be "the stake driven through the heart of my fantasy football addiction." Instead, it has intensified. He has since turned it into a career, writing How to Think Like a Fantasy Football Winner and contributing to several fantasy sites. "Someone who is addicted to, say, heroin, is chasing that feeling that they had the first time they ever did heroin," says Carter, 31, who lives in Rockville, Maryland. "When you're right on about a very difficult fantasy decision, that is a fantastic feeling. It's this dopamine rush that you get. I can't resist that part of it."