By the time late July rolls around, sports fans like me are ready to breathe a sigh of relief.

It's been 172 days since the Pittsburgh Steelers, with a little help from the refs, won Super Bowl XL. Since then, we've had baseball. But unless you root for one of the roughly five teams that has a real shot at winning the World Series each year, it's hard to get excited about the interminable, 162-game season. (Note to Bud Selig: When the payroll disparity between your highest and lowest spending teams is $185 million, something is broken.) Don't get me wrong: Baseball is a great sport, just not a great league.

So when late July rolls around, I feel a surge of new life. Finally, football training camps are opening around the country. The new season will kick off soon. More importantly, so will the chase for the company Fantasy Football League trophy.

Fantasy football is the Holy Grail of fantasy sports and, for many office denizens like myself, the highlight of every work year. (I can admit that openly because my boss is in the same league, pursuing the same Christianity Today International FFL trophy.)

Fantasy football got its start, according to Fantasy Football Index, in 1962, when a part owner of the Oakland Raiders, Wilfred Winkenbach, created the game with two Oakland Tribune reporters during a road-game trip to New York. They developed a system for choosing skill players around the league, scoring their achievements each game, and allowing fantasy teams to compete head-to-head. They called their league the Greater Oakland Professional Pigskin Prognosticators League (GOPPPL).

The premier player in GOPPPL's first season was George Blanda, who threw 27 TD passes, kicked 11 field goals (out of 26 attempts) and completed 48 extra-point kicks (out of 49). Peyton Manning, step aside.

Fantasy football has grown a bit since that inaugural season. Thanks largely to the internet, about 15 to 18 million players—or "owners," as we prefer to be called—now run teams in thousands of leagues, and the game continues to attract new players at a rate of 7 percent to 10 percent each year. As an industry, fantasy sports rake in at least $1.5 billion in revenue annually.

The attraction, no doubt, has a lot to do with the thrill and illusion of major-league control. In real life, no professional sports team has ever called to ask my opinion about a possible trade or coach hiring. But in my fantasy league, I get to make the decisions professionals would never trust me to make.

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I was the one who picked Freddie Mitchell as a rookie in 2001, for instance, before he began a string of four forgettable seasons marked by more sound bites than touchdowns. I also picked Tampa Bay's defense the next year, when they carried the Buccaneers to a Super Bowl victory and regularly piled up more fantasy points than most wide receivers.

I've won some, and I've lost some. But it's been all me. My decisions. My will. My domain.

Normally, I never get that level of control. More than likely, you don't either. Cats pee on the carpet, spouses disagree with us, children need medical care, jobs bring stress into our lives—and that was just last week for me. As James wrote to the church in Jerusalem: "Now listen, you who say, 'Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.' … You ought to say, 'If it is the Lord's will, we will live and do this or that'" (James 4: 13–15).

As Christians, God is the GM of our lives, not us. That can be hard to take at times. Furthermore, in God's economy, control and responsibility are inextricably tied. We don't have a say over much that we encounter, yet God holds us responsible for our attitudes, actions, and responses. In fact, God asks that we hand over our free will—what Jesus called "taking up our Cross" and following him—in exchange for even greater responsibility, a call to live "as children of light," "making the most of every opportunity," and "understand[ing] what the Lord's will is" (Eph. 5).

Fantasy football is just the opposite. It offers autonomous decision-making without real consequences. If I make a bad pick, no one loses their job. When I trade a player, I don't have to consider how the move will affect his wife and kids. I can, in short, do whatever I want and nothing at all will come of it.

Yet complete control remains an illusion, even in fantasy sports. I may decide to draft Larry Johnson with my first pick this year (as I most certainly will if I get a chance), but I can't keep him from getting injured in training camp. I may put together a near-perfect team, but I can't stop another owner from assembling an even-better team. Even in fantasy, we find ourselves constrained.

So here's my advice. If you haven't played fantasy football, by all means, join a league. If you're disappointed with the way God seems to run your life sometimes, re-read Joseph's story in the last 13 chapters of Genesis. And if you're thinking about fantasy drafting a quarterback in the first round, don't. The first two rounds should be all running backs, all the time.

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Earlier Play Ball columns include:

Equal Pay for Women? | The stubborn Brits who run Wimbledon refuse to pay the female tennis players as much as the men. Good for them. (July 13, 2006)
What's to Love About Women's Sports | There's no denying the pure joy and determination of female athletes. (June 29, 2006)
The NBA? Or the UN? | It's called the National Basketball Association, but it's looking quite international—thanks in great part to a Christian GM for the Dallas Mavs. (June 22, 2006)
Onward Christian Shortstops | The Colorado Rockies make a noble—if problematic—plan for winning. (June 1, 2006)
Incomplete Sentences | Many pro athletes convicted of a crime are sentenced to a lame excuse for "community service." It's time for the legal system to show a little backbone. (May 11, 2006)
Bowling Alone No More | A stealth revolution in attitude may be brewing. (May 4, 2006)
Sports as Soap Opera | Sportswriters seem to have forgotten their godly calling. By Mark Galli (April 27,2006)
'You Trying to Say Jesus Christ Can't Hit a Curveball?' | Fans vent their frustration on struggling slugger who professes religious devotion. By Collin Hansen (Apr., 20, 2006)
Un Problema Grande, No? | What major league baseball reveals about the dangers of immigration. By Mark Galli (Apr. 13, 2006)
WWJWD? | In the wake of UCLA's loss in Monday's NCAA championship game, I couldn't help but wonder: What would John Wooden do? By Mark Moring (April 6, 2006)

Play Ball
From 2005 to 2007, "Play Ball" examined the relationship of sports and faith: sports is important precisely because it is a form of play, that is, a manifestation of the Sabbath. Contributors included Mark Galli, Collin Hansen, Mark Moring, and others.
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