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Personal fouls

Think football is a dangerous sport? Try playing fantasy football ... with your friends.

Adam Sherman. Matt Nickerson, Don Bailey, and Chris Gotreau Fantasy football players (from left) Adam Sherman. Matt Nickerson, Don Bailey, and Chris Gotreau at Jerry Remy's Sports Bar & Grill. (Globe photo / Matthew J. Lee)
By Beth Teitell
Globe Staff / October 26, 2010

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With a name like fantasy football, it should at least be fun.

But listen to Matthew DiAntonio, 34, of Plymouth, describe the scene at the Main Street Bar & Grill in Weymouth, when he and a few members of his MassManiacs fantasy league confronted a fellow player about his inadequate efforts, and then, after failing to reach an agreement, asked him to drop out.

“His initial response was anger and denial,’’ said DiAntonio, an online marketer. Then came the excuses — “I’ve been working a lot, I haven’t had time’’ — and finally the obscenities. “He threw his hands up, said ‘[Expletive] you guys,’ and stormed out of the bar.’’ DiAntonio and the others paid his tab, but even so, the ousted player unfriended them on Facebook, and none of the guys were invited to his wedding.

“That night was the last time we talked to him,’’ DiAntonio said. “I consider him to have been a very good friend, but it was the right thing to do.’’

Piling on? Perhaps. But with so much on the line in fantasy football — ego, bragging rights, a serious investment of time, and, in some leagues, money — emotions can run high. Players love the game because it allows them to act just like National Football League team owners and coaches, giving them the power to draft and trade athletes, and to decide whom to play and whom to bench. But it can also pit friend against friend and suck the enjoyment out of football itself.

“It’s not an uncommon story to hear about friends who don’t talk anymore because of disagreements about fantasy football,’’ said Bryan Douglass, managing editor for the Fanball Sports Network. “They take it way too seriously.’’

The ranks of the obsessed are growing. This year, more than 20 million people in the United States are playing fantasy football, says Paul Charchian, president of the Fantasy Sports Trade Association. That’s up from about 13.5 million in 2007.

Spouses of dedicated fantasy fans are a long-suffering lot, as players get swept up in the endless trades, free agents, and bye week pickups. But as for other league members — what’s there to clash over in a pretend world?

What isn’t there? Sometimes two players in the same league collude, making trades that are advantageous to one player, to the detriment of the rest of the league. Or one player lets his team go downhill, an act of laziness that brings down the whole league’s level of play. And, with many leagues staying together for years, there are histories of slights and insults to contend with.

“Hopefully this will make sense,’’ said Pete Lacombe, 32, of Medford, a health care account manager, as he began the saga of his league’s break-up. “We used to have a rule where we could trade players for draft picks, and my team wasn’t going anywhere, so I traded a couple of players that were on my team for draft picks for the next season. But the other owner wound up leaving the league, and there was a big hullabaloo that they wouldn’t be able to find someone to take his team because he wouldn’t have those draft picks. It turned into a big fight and ended up breaking up the league.’’

Lacombe paused to reflect. “I was certainly upset,’’ he said. “But once you cool down, you realize how trivial it all is.’’

Of course, in the obsessive and addictive world of fantasy football, everything matters. A lot. And anything can feel like a slap.

Consider the case of Avi Herscovici, 28, a software engineer from Brookline. A West Coast league he’d been asked to join couldn’t find a mutually acceptable time for the live online draft because Herscovici was on the East Coast. After too many fruitless e-mails Herscovici got the following “Dear John’’ Gchat message from his friend in San Francisco: “It’s not working out.’’

“I thought I was doing him a favor,’’ said a miffed Herscovici.

Many leagues involve money, with members paying a fee in order to play. Most of the pots are small, with 95 percent of the entry fees, or antes, falling between $10 and $200, according to Charchian. Even so, conflicts over cash can intrude on the fantasy.

“It’s not my place to judge,’’ began Don Bailey, 31, general manager of Jerry Remy’s Sports Bar & Grill, near Fenway Park. A player in his Boston Boys league hadn’t yet anted up his $50, Bailey explained, and was facing an ultimatum: Deposit the money in a PayPal account, or get it to the appropriate person, or else.

“It speaks to someone’s character for someone to be a friend and not follow through on their word,’’ he said. “They’ve gone through the draft and tied up players that are good, and for them to compromise the integrity of the entire league I’d rather they just say up front they don’t have the $50.’’

As anyone who’s married to a fantasy fanatic, or who sits near one at work, knows, the enterprise is becoming so time-consuming it’s less hobby than job. Here’s Douglass, of the Fanball Sports Network, describing what it takes to be a “loyal’’ player: “I’d guess you are putting in a combined 4-6 hours per day if you include reading, researching, analyzing, any discussions with league mates about trades, waiver wire work to address needs that arise, and all of the minutiae that can go with it.’’

There are Twitter feeds to monitor, injury reports to check, games to watch, and handicapping services to subscribe to. Dennis Doughty, vice president of research and development at Jumptap in Cambridge, and a member of three leagues, said before he played fantasy football he could relax while watching football. And now? “The analogy is sort of like when you and your wife are trying to get pregnant, all of a sudden sex is a chore,’’ he said.

Such is the emotional power of fantasy football that it can threaten even the most stable of relationships: grandparent-grandchild.

Andrew Miller, a partner in the Newton-based FFChamps.com, a fantasy football advice site, and coldhardfootballfacts.com, described a recent outing taken by his father, a loyal Patriots fan, and his 9-year-old son, a fantasy football fan who does not have Randy Moss on his roster. The pair were enjoying the Pats game — pre-Moss trade — when the boy blurted out that he hoped Moss didn’t score. That alarmed grandpa, who made it clear that rooting against the home team, even if it would be a boon to his grandson’s fantasy football team, was not acceptable.

“His grandfather takes him to every game,’’ Miller said of his son, “so he was diplomatic.’’

Beth Teitell can be reached at bteitell@globe.com.