According to certain anonymous, high-ranking league sources, the NFL draft is actually just a bunch of middle-aged men talking on the telephone. League insiders whisper that there are other, better things to do with an early spring Saturday than wait around for seven excruciating hours for the first two rounds of this thing to unfold.
A spate of late-breaking rumors suggests that I actually have no idea who most of the major draft prospects are! This despite having watched something on the balance of eighteen total hours of ESPN draft specials over the course of the previous three weeks.
And yet 24 hours from now, there I will be, sprawled in mock Roman splendor on Pete Hoffman’s sofa for the fifteenth consecutive year, watching the NFL Commissioner read young men’s names off of large index cards. Thus we return again to one of the sports world’s most peculiar modern rituals.
This is all part and parcel of the waxing and waning, the enhancement and diminishment which characterizes the way our fandom acts upon us. Sometimes we are led to witness spectacles of surprising courage, talent and bravery — say Muhammed Ali defeating George Foreman in Zaire. Other times our compulsion makes us watch things like this draft, which is essentially a telethon minus entertainment and pledges.
The elevation of the draft into a privileged place in the consciousness of such a large number of sports fans is perhaps the single greatest representational display of the NFL’s awesomely formidable marketing arm. To say that the scouting process for this draft is something of a pseudo-science is to gravely insult the many honorable practitioners of astrology, dowsing and general witchcraft.
I have said it before in this column, and I will reiterate it now: the vast majority of highly respected NFL "personnel experts" are in point of fact nothing more than unusually well-paid gym teachers. Consensus positions on the potential for players to succeed as professionals are reached gradually and by dint of a strange cabal of General Mangers, journalists, and "Draft Experts" with no apparent secondary connection to sports at all. These opinions are teased and tortured out at massive expense and are completely and utterly wrong an astonishing amount of the time.
Take, for instance, the 2000 draft, a cursory glance at which reveals that three of the top four players chosen are no longer playing in the league. Meanwhile, Tom Brady, the 199th pick overall that year, is as we all know on a very short list of anyone’s greatest players of his generation. Consider: this was not one team making this mistake one time — like the Portland Trailblazers selecting Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan — this was 32 teams experiencing this ridiculous oversight repeatedly. Were it an isolated occurrence, it might merely make for an amusing anecdote. But basically this happens every single year. Given their track record for jaw-slackening incompetence, it is startling that none of the major decision makers in NFL draft circles have yet been given a war planning position in the Bush administration.
Bearing in mind the essential silliness of the entire occasion, what then makes this event actually watchable? As I reflect on this matter, I recognize that there was a time in my life where I actually did not think it was something you actually looked at on television. What possible reason could there have been to do that? It seemed like the Major League Baseball draft — I didn’t really know any of the players anyway, so best to let my team of choice pick who they were going to pick anyway, and then catch up with it in the papers the following day. Around the early 90s, something crucial happened to alter this phenomenon. I do not know exactly what confluence of canny marketing and fevered desire to experience at least some flavor of the NFL 365 days a year combined to suddenly cause me to purchase draft guides and lie awake at night pondering trade scenarios and potential late-round steals, but by 1995 I had manifested many of the obsessive ticks that one commonly associates with the most delinquent hobbyists.
This worrying trend culminated in 2001, when the failure of my preferred pro franchise to capitalize on the opportunity to steal a potential sixth round bargain from West Texas State sent me into a beleagured and sleepless two-week depression. Following the intervention I recognized that I had grown too attached to the draft process altogether — but was it really necessary to hit rock bottom in the first place?
I am not the only one who has been sucked into this treacherous web either. Just check the countless 200 page "Draft Guides" that begin clustering newsstands and supermarket magazine racks as early as January. ESPN’s first day draft coverage routinely draws huge ratings each year, outdrawing the NBA playoffs by 5 to 1 in terms of viewership. Over the past several months, I have found myself in coffee shops and corner bars discussing the possibility of the Raiders trading out of the #1 slot or whether Cleveland will draft a quarterback at #3 — and I don’t even LIKE these teams. I don’t care. I wouldn’t want to have to watch them play. Many if not most of these draft prospects will never appear on my radar screen again! So what exactly is going on here?!
No telling with any certainty, but if the emergence of this phenomenon has a patron saint it is certainly the surpassingly strange, helmet-headed oddball Mel Kiper, Jr. As the Coen Brothers famously observed in The Big Lebowski: Sometimes, there’s a man, well, he’s the man for his time and place. Kiper’s emergence in the mid-1980s as a self-appointed “Draft Guru” with no experience as a player or an official scout so flabbergasted the cloistered community of league insiders that they have often be moved to rage against his insolence. The oddly brash and even indignant tone with which he defends his “player projections” on ESPN’s draft day coverage has frequently grated on the nerves of tense GMs, who never can quite figure out what the man is doing there in the first place. This has periodically led to some delightfully tense television, as in 1994 when former Colts GM Bill Tobin famously lashed out against him:
"We got a guy up here … and who in the hell is Mel Kiper, anyway? I mean, here’s a guy who criticizes everybody, whoever they take. He’s got the answers to who you should take, to who you shouldn’t take. He tells us about your team. He tells us about the Rams. He tells us about Tampa and everything else. In my knowledge of him, he’s never even put on a jockstrap, he’s never been a player, he’s never been a coach, he’s never been a scout, he’s never been an administrator, and all of a sudden, he’s an expert. He’s in our paper two days ago, telling us who we have to take. We don’t have to take anybody that Mel Kiper says we have to take. Mel Kiper has no more credentials to do what he’s doing than my neighbor, and my neighbor’s a postman and he doesn’t even have season tickets to the NFL."
Inadvertently, during his tirade, it would seem that Tobin has gotten to the essence of the NFL draft as popular phenomenon. There is nothing factually inaccurate about his remarks — Kiper is utterly unqualified by any traditional standard — but the fact remains that he is correct roughly as often as the teams he criticizes, and arguably has a better track record than most. In the wake of the cottage industry he created, other strange and unaccountable types emerged to make a living second-guessing the appointed experts.
These men stand as a kind of proxy for fans themselves, co-mingling with ex-players on endless draft preview shows, conjecturing wildly about things they could never ever know, abetted by the recognition that they are likely to be as correct as anybody else.
On draft day itself the entire carnival atmosphere comes together completely. The panelists and gurus co-mingle with the more outgoing, publicity-minded front-office types like Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who is filmed busily engaged in who knows what in his “War Room.” The picks are read by the commissioner with such ceremonial gravity that one cannot help but feel they are witnessing history on a grand scale. The surprise moves up and down the draft board and other machinations (which are rarely actually very surprising) are received by the assembled audience and panelists with wide-eyed shock and amazement. Chris Berman sounds like a man very much on the brink of losing control when inevitable he intones: “I think we have our first trade of the day!” Hours pass. It’s suddenly dark outside. ESPN and the NFL have created a wholly synthetic enterprise of negligible consequence and turned it into a mainstream amusement and powerful revenue generator. Talk about your witchery! What will they do this with next: jury duty?