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Fantasy sports aren't what they used to be, and that's a little sad

Devlin D'Zmura, a tending news manager at DraftKings, a daily fantasy sports company, works on his laptop at the company's offices in Boston.
Devlin D'Zmura, a tending news manager at DraftKings, a daily fantasy sports company, works on his laptop at the company's offices in Boston. (Stephan Savoia / Associated Press)

Few traits are more human than taking a good thing too far.

A summer blockbuster diverts us, so we demand it become a trilogy (or a septet these days). Pork is tasty so we invent the bacon explosion — for the uninitiated, a log of spicy sausage wrapped in bacon and tossed on the grill. The NCAA tournament was great with 64 teams so we pushed it to 68.

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That's what I thought of as I read about alleged corruption in the multi-billion-dollar fantasy sports industry. The New York Times reported this week that employees at FanDuel and DraftKings, the kingpins of daily fantasy sports, are suspected of using insider information to win large jackpots. The report comes at a time of growing concern about the government cracking down on the industry, much as it did with online poker in 2011.

I broke up with fantasy sports (well, mostly) about five years ago.

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Just a few years before that, I wrote columns and recorded podcasts about fantasy baseball, football and basketball. I formed my first fantasy baseball league in the seventh grade, cramming 10 middle schoolers into my childhood bedroom for a raucous auction at which I spent $90 on the outfield pair of Eric Davis and Darryl Strawberry. Of course, we called it Rotisserie then. But I embraced the obsession gleefully, burying my head in books and magazines in hopes of being the best-informed owner in the room. The December arrival of Ron Shandler's Baseball Forecaster was the earliest hint of spring.

There was plenty of backlash against fantasy sports over the years, mostly from traditionalists who believed our imaginary games wrongly shifted the emphasis from teams to individual players. But I doggedly defended the hobby, arguing that it would only make fandom richer by giving more people more reasons to care about more games.

Gradually, fantasy football became about as mainstream as any activity in this country. When I walk into the Orioles clubhouse in September, I inevitably hear players talking smack about their football drafts. Waiting to put my son on the bus in the morning, I hear neighborhood moms discussing how their teams performed over the weekend. Pretty much anyone who watches television has been deluged in recent weeks by commercials for DraftKings and FanDuel.

So I should be thrilled, right? My arguments about fantasy creating a richer fan experience have all come to fruition.

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Instead, I cringe a little every time I hear another plug for DraftKings or watch Sunday morning coverage laced with "who to start, who to sit" segments.

I know I'm not alone in this. Dan Okrent, the writer and editor who invented Rotisserie baseball, long ago recoiled in horror from his Frankenstein monster. I remember shrugging off Okrent's reservations as highfalutin crankiness. Now, I'm right there with him.

Some of it is just that I'm crankier. My elder son is coming up on his sixth birthday and my younger on his second, so I don't have the reserve time or energy to squander on studying the latest sleepers. I think about sports a lot for work, so what free time I do have is more likely to go to music, an intriguing television series or an interesting book.

But I don't think that's all of it. I used to find fantasy sports genuinely charming. Sure, we played for money, but the potential payoff wasn't nearly enough to justify the scores (hundreds?) of hours spent preparing. I would have played for nothing.

I loved knowing I was bound to certain groups of friends because we were irrationally devoted to doing this unimportant hobby really well. It's why I still play in my one remaining league — the venerable 40 Acres. I'm a mediocre player at best these days. But I see those guys, most of whom I met through this game, once a year. Friday night, we gorge on Peter Luger steak. Then we're auctioning by 9 a.m. the next morning.

That to me is fantasy sports.

As soon as daily fantasy games began to proliferate, I recognized them as something else entirely — something much more akin to straight gambling. Money was the object, not camaraderie. Game theory seemed more important than researching baseball or football.

Understand, this doesn't bother me on a moral level. I try very hard not to begrudge other people their fun, even if I do not identify with it. Gamble to your heart's content. It's just not for me.

But there is a feeling of innocence lost. As I watch this Goliath gain momentum, it's hard not to imagine it gobbling up my goofy hobby. The term fantasy sports doesn't mean the same thing  now that it did 20 years ago, and who knows what it'll mean 20 years from now? As I said at the top, nothing could be more human than this out-of-control expansion. It's just a little sad.

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