It’s no secret that the NFL draft is catnip cut with Vicodin for the pro football fan. It kills the pain of the off-season and becomes the focal point for parties, pow-wows and all matter of percolating prattle. Though the draft has been around since 1936, it’s become must-see TV only in the last twenty-five years. (In 1936, number-one pick Jay Berwanger didn’t even suit up for the league.) Thanks to ESPN, which began broadcasting the draft in 1980, it has become a major scene of fandemonium. This pigskin meat market is mindless fun, and in our all-too-serious sports world, fun is often in short supply.
The draft also has created a whole cottage industry of experts, gurus, and commentators, led by the helmet-haired Mel Kiper, Jr., who, like a Bush Administration official circa 2002, is hellaciously confident, no matter how wrong. And fans can play general manager–just like fantasy football. It’s a revealing commentary on the times that sports fantasies don’t put us on field but in the executive office. Fans may never be able to run forty yards in 4.3 seconds, bench-press 225 pounds or even pass the bizarre NFL IQ test known as The Wonderlic. The draft has become the summit for the sedentary sports fan.
The draft also allows general managers to play general manager. This is a world without experts, where GMs study the contours of players’ faces, or engage in the study of “brain typing” to quantify the unquantifiable. For every sports hero who becomes a bust, there are players deemed too slow (like Hall of Fame wide receiver Jerry Rice), too “troubled” (like future Hall of Fame wide receiver Randy Moss) or too unintelligent (Wonderlic flop and Hall of Famer Dan Marino) who somehow make their way. It’s the kind of epic crap shoot that only football can produce.
In Major League Baseball’s Moneyball era, true believers in GM offices claim that they can lower the risks of a great crapshoot by focusing on variables like on-base percentage and dismissing or devaluing other historically valued stats like stolen bases. It’s debatable whether this works, but at least in baseball, if you can throw 98 mph or hit a curve ball, there is a very good chance you will have some success.
But football is so deeply dependent on the dynamic between individual and team, between system and player, that predicting individual success is an absolute minefield, one that seems to blow up on draft day.
Yet there is a corrosive side to the fun. The endless speculation on the personal lives of players–as if that’s an indicator of future success–can veer from the ridiculous to the offensive. Take the picked-over, picked-apart, Arkansas “superstud” running back Darren McFadden. The developing consensus is that the talented McFadden is somehow a risky pick because his Wikipedia page says he has “character concerns.”
Once you look past the hype, however, McFadden’s story is a case study in the kind of character a typical “draftnik” couldn’t hope to comprehend. Here is someone who comes from a neighborhood in Little Rock where gangs and random killings are a daily fact of life. Instead of being seen as an indication of the remarkable character and perseverance it took to make it out of a home with eleven siblings, with one brother a Blood and another a Crip, his origins become just another strike against him.
This is someone from a neighborhood with an incarceration rate that exceeds the graduation rate, but who has never been arrested. OK, so he’s been in a couple of bar fights, but imagine if entertainers were held to the same standard. What if Sean Penn couldn’t get a movie role because he’s been in a fist fight or two? What if any actor who has ever smoked weed or made an ass of himself was somehow deemed unworthy? It’s a ridiculous double standard driven by general managers who fear they will lose their jobs if they can’t predict the future.
That’s the difference between Hollywood and the NFL. In Tinseltown, celebrities who act out for the paparazzi and our US Weekly fix are mainly white and largely forgiven for their wildness. Future NFL players who get poked and prodded like prize horses at auction are almost all working class and predominantly black. For an NFL draftee, that first contract and signing bonus may be the largest part of what they make for their entire career. An NFL lifespan often lasts three to four years. Contracts aren’t guaranteed and the signing bonus is everything. Part of the tension we feel watching the NFL draft lies in knowing that the future of the individual hangs in the balance.
As we over-analyze the great crap shoot this weekend, let’s also remember what is usually overlooked: these are real people with real families. For them football is no fantasy.