This fall, two great phenomena have disturbed our friends and neighbors. The generally reliable type (or steady flakes, now validated) are suddenly loudmouths, blustering and making excuses: one group because a planet appears to be moving backwards but isn’t actually, and the second because they’re consumed in a game of time-sucking make-believe. What’s gotten into everybody? And, more importantly, who is more insufferable, the people who bitch about planets as though they’re frenemies, or those who face-palm over football players as if they were prodigal sons?
Football season, and by extension, fantasy football season, kicked off in early September. Mercury retrograded itself a couple weeks later. And thus came the perfect storm of obsessives, ranting about imaginary things that no one cares about except them (and of course, there are a lot of them). Astrology buffs and fantasy heads are alike in their tendency to become embroiled tracking planets or players, studying predictions or projections, immersed in a world of hypotheticals that doesn’t mean much to anyone else.
After spending so much (unintentional) time around fantasy fanatics and Mercury Retrograde broken records, the pastimes start to seem parallel as exercises in the limits of personal agency—a grab for and abdication of control. When you believe in astrology, how much of what happens to you is because of you, or because it’s written in the stars? When you’re a fantasy team owner, do you do well because you did your homework and started the best player, or because your opponent’s running back got injured?
Writer Josh Keefe, the worst high school quarterback ever (who admits he is “also pretty mediocre at fantasy football” although the difference is he actually wins some of those matches) had some things to say about similarities between the two.
“No matter how much you research or know about either fantasy football or astrology, it doesn’t actually mean anything and that knowledge will do little to affect your performance,” he wrote to me in an email. “Fantasy football seems to me, at least above a certain basic knowledge threshold, pretty much luck. I say this, however, because I’m 2-2 right now. If I was 4-0, I would probably be willing to give skill and/or preparation a greater share of responsibility for the outcome. When shit happens to me, it’s fate, or the stars, or the inscrutable nature of NFL injuries. But when I have success, it’s due to my choices and actions and roster moves.”
And maybe that’s the divide that’s built into our self-aggrandizing nature: we are happy to acknowledge our own actions when things are going well, but when we spill wine on our laptop or our team doesn’t perform, there must be forces out of our control at work.
Fantasy team owners (ones that are winning, at least) certainly argue there is plenty of strategy involved, studying weekly projections to decide which players to start or sit, with the option to trade guys with anybody in your league, or pick up a free agent. The current Draft Kings scandal certainly illustrates that insider knowledge does produce better results. But in fantasy, even if you read columns from all the top analysts and consult every cheat sheet you can find, you’ll still never be able to prepare for what might befall your players—who are living, breathing athletes behind their PRKs—in any given week. In a similar way, you’re stuck with your lot in the zodiac: you can’t trade Leo for Scorpio if you’re not feeling your horoscope one week (although we don’t seem too far from a fantasy astrology league, to be honest). All you can do is make adjustments based on the heads-up you’re given.
Eric Dougherty, a PHD candidate at UC Berkeley’s school of Environmental Science, Policy and Management, nerds out to fantasy not just because he’s a Jets fan and it gives him “a way of escaping from watching a constantly losing team,” but also because the mechanism of making projections for what a player will do in any given match up is not so different from his academic work modeling wildlife populations over time. He frequents fantasyfootballanalytics.com, where stat heads use r scripts to compile and analyze projections from a host of different fantasy sites to try to arrive at the most accurate bet.
But, though he’s attracted to the number crunching, the variables are fantasy’s real draw. He told me about how the concept of stochasticity, or inherent randomness, “anything from a player waking up with a tummy ache or having a grudge against a defensive back going back to their days at rival colleges that may influence their performance that day” factors into the fantasy game. He said there’s ways to account for it in the math, but “at some point there is just so much randomness that nobody in their right mind would attempt to model it all.” And then he concluded his email to me with, “I don’t think I’ve ever written so much about anything more meaningless in my life.”
With so many variables to juggle, maybe that’s why some resort to arbitrary logic, like starting somebody because his new haircut has him looking sharp, or a guy I know who will ask his girlfriend what names she likes best during the draft. And for the many people out there who’ll openly mock astrology as a pseudoscience, there seem too few ready to call fantasy football pure make-believe.
Still, even some people who take football very seriously refuse to buy in. Lindsay Jones, an NFL reporter for USA Today, said, “People ask me all the time, ‘Player X vs. Player Y’ and I always want to reply, ‘I don’t care.’” She is in two fantasy leagues, admittedly, but adds, “I spend most of my time worrying about real football—the actual people behind those names on your fantasy lineup.”
Jones spoke to the kind of cognitive dissonance that fantasy team owners often experience when they’re simultaneously rooting for real football and fantasy football: “One of the problems that I have is that what makes a good fantasy player is not necessarily the same as what makes a winning real player or real team. Like last week, when my starting quarterback Andrew Luck had a bunch of turnovers against the Jets yet I somehow still won my game because he threw three screen passes at the end, getting me the one point I needed to break a tie. That’s just silly, to sit there and root for 20 passing yards in a game that’s already over.”
Jones also made the distinction that “fantasy is just a game,” which led me to wonder: what does she think football is?
Wall Street Journal football columnist Jason Gay, writing about his first ever season of fantasy, sums it up: “Fantasy Football makes you do crazy stuff. You now have a stake in meaningless contests you’d never consider watching in the past. That Vikings-Niners game was about as entertaining as watching a goat take a nap. And yet there I was, as the clock pushed midnight, because it suddenly mattered. Sort of.”
And what if you combine the two? Bay Area astrologer Andrea Mallis, known as Virgo in Service, has made a career predicting outcomes in sports using astrology. She’ll match up a player’s birth chart, which shows the position of the planets at the exact time, place and date he was born, with current alignments to predict future seasons. She’ll pay close attention to the position of Mars, the planet that rules energy, assertion and aggression; Saturn, the planet of limitation, restraint, and the skeletal system.
Whereas most sports analysis looks at a player’s past performance as an indicator, sports astrology more so looks ahead at what cycles are to come. “It’s the nature of the beast that planets change and move and what you did the last five years is not necessarily an indicator of what you’ll do the next five years. It’s all about timing, and astrology provides a map for optimal timing to all changes. You don’t want to sign a player at the cusp of a low energy cycle.” Mallis generally weighs in on real sports, with baseball as her specialty, but occasionally, a client will ask her to look at a given player’s chart for their fantasy team. “They’re putting all this time and energy and money into it, so why not look for another competitive edge, which is what sports astrology can bring,” she says. Well, sure, why the hell not?
Another astrologer I consulted, Titan O’Connell of Montpelier, Vermont, is a football fan who first found his footing in the stars when he accurately predicted Vikings QB Brett Favre’s birth chart—five planets in Libra, the sign associated strongly with indecision. (Before that, he was an engineer at IBM.) When we spoke on the phone, reception kept going in and out, which O’Connell naturally attributed to Mercury, the messenger planet, and its deceptive motion. He said that for predictions levied in both fantasy and astrology, “it’s all guesswork. It’s not that different from predicting the weather. People like to pick on the weatherman for being wrong, but sports analysts are wrong all the time.” He said football is more socially-acceptable, while astrology gets a bad rap: “If astrology were a sport, it would probably be NASCAR.”
But people do get upset when sports analysts are wrong. ESPN Senior Fantasy Analyst Matthew Berry’s weekly column of fantasy picks “Love/Hate” inspires such vituperative tweets as “Die in a fire you spineless shill” and public heckling. Although he writes it in a very conversational tone, laden with disclaimers of the Hey, don’t listen to me, I’m just a regular guy variety, readers routinely bang down his door on Twitter, demanding answers on who to start or sit in any given week, praising him when his picks perform, slamming him when he’s off. It’s as though they can’t think for themselves, and go to Berry as a kind of oracle. The mix of adulation and scorn is dizzying. One reader in the “tattoo league,” a fantasy league in Nebraska that requires each year’s losers to get inked as punishment, sports him on his thigh:
And doubled up, for year two:
The overheated deification of Berry calls to mind that of mega-popular astrologer Susan Miller, whom readers similarly view as either a soothsayer or a scapegoat. Her free, 3500-word-average monthly horoscopes on Astrology Zone attract 6.5 million monthly viewers ranging from casual dabblers to full-blown “Susanistas” and “Millaniacs,” as Atlantic writer Jon Methven has dubbed the two camps of Miller’s alternately vilifying and aggrandizing disciples. Her cult of loyal readers is so dependent on her forecasts that, when she posted the July 2014 horoscopes a whole week late due to chronic health issues, they took to Facebook and Twitter to unload a barrage of insults and accusations that she was lying about her sickness, even founding an “Abandoned by Susan Miller” Facebook page. A TLDR episode about it cites a tweet from that time: “Throw me a fugging bone Susan Miller, it’s July 7, where is my July horoscope, who’s going to tell me how to live my life?”
Mercury went direct on October 9, and the fantasy football season ends for most in early December. Soon, we’ll see a respite from the chatter. But there’s always basketball, baseball, and then football again—and the next Mercury retrograde starts January 6, the first of four in 2016. Better get your magical thinking in shape.
Kate Mooney is a New Orleans born-and-raised, Brooklyn-based writer. She’s a Scorpio and a Saints fan, not that it fucking matters.
Illustration by Jim Cooke.