The Downside

Q. Why do Mark Reynolds and Adam Dunn refuse to cut down on their high strikeout totals?

A. Because they hit lots of home runs and receive big contracts.

They reflect the modern athlete: he who is motivated by stats.

Look at the box score of Sunday night’s matchup between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New England Patriots. Ignore the score of the game, but just look at the comparison of stats between quarterbacks Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger. Their passing stats are as follows:

For Big Ben: 387 passing yards, 3 touchdowns, 1 interception

For Brady: 350 passing yards, 3 touchdowns, 0 interceptions

Based on the relatively traditional scoring system used in my league, Brady scored a whopping 0.52 points more than Roethlisberger in passing. Well, those who watched the game know how misleading that is.

In fact, Brady played one of the best games he’s played since 2008 and Roethlisberger picked up most of his stats in garbage time. Prior to the 4th quarter, as his team got dismantled, Roethlisberger had only 103 yards and zero touchdowns.

To further emphasize my point, if you look at the top scorers from NFL Week 10, you will find Matt Cassel as the second best quarterback, Keiland Williams as the best running back and Dwayne Bowe as the best wide receiver. All three play for teams that got blown out.

This is the unique nature of fantasy sports. Fantasy success rarely parallels reality.

But this is a vital component to 21st Century sports. As I’ve pointed out time and time again in this blog, fantasy sports no longer complement real sports. It is ingrained in them.

What that means is that these skewed fantasy statistics are having a greater effect on the way fans (and even management) think about current athletes.

Four of the top five scorers for the 2010 season in a standard PPR league are Arian Foster, Adrian Peterson, Frank Gore and Terrell Owens. Their teams’ combined records? 12-24. In fact, of the Patriots and the New York Jets (the teams with the two best records in the AFC), there are no running backs or wide receivers among the top 25 fantasy scorers.

Consequently, odds are, if the season ended today, Philip Rivers would win the MVP. His fantasy numbers are phenomenal, no question, but his team is 4-5. Is he a better quarterback than Brady or Matt Ryan? If you take his fantasy production, yes. If you look at their team records, not even close.

There is more to an athlete than his statistical production. For instance, Andre Dawson was inducted into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame last year despite not hitting 500 home runs, a pedestrian .279 career batting average and not cracking the top 30 in career RBIs. Still, voters remember him for his intimidating presence in the lineup, his superb defense and his commendable work ethic. Those qualities don’t show up in the box score and, therefore, have no bearing on fantasy sports.

But I fear this is the direction sports is headed. That scares me because players will play for statistics, not championships, and owners will reward them with hefty contracts simply for their numbers.

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