Loving & Loathing The NFL Draft

Photo by Adrian Curiel on Unsplash

Despite myself, despite it all, I love the NFL Draft.

The NFL as an entity has a million problems and reasons I cannot stand it, all of it having to do with the League, ownership, management, and especially the culture and narrative that they put out into the world. Sports are a story, tied to geography and family and childhood and team history and players, and the NFL is the biggest league of all in this country; they should be doing a much better job with all of these factors. The reason it is, and remains, hugely popular, aside from these ties that bind people to their teams and rivalries, is, I think, three-fold: 

1. The Game. Football is brutal, but it is incredibly compelling as a game in and of itself because there is so much nuance involved. The more you watch and learn, the more the game comes alive through the ways in which these nuances are illuminated for you as a viewer. Have you ever tried to explain football to a little kid? It has so many weird rules (good luck explaining Illegal Shift or covering up tackles at the line of scrimmage) and while I can no longer imagine a time when I didn’t understand football, I also think the nuances and rules are what keep people away at first, because you watch a snap, giant men smash into each other, maybe you get three yards, or an incomplete pass, or seven yards, and this makes up literally 90% of the game– there is so much to understand. But it is pretty amazing as a game in that way. So good, in fact, that the in addition to the NFL, college football– essentially the league’s farm system– is a multi-billion dollar industry of its own.  

2. The Money. Much like American capitalism, that subsidizes and protects wealth (hello, Job Creators!) while pretending to be a “free market,” the NFL is actually a socialist system masquerading as an elite capitalist system. On the one hand, the sport venerates owners, the billionaires who literally own teams and make upper management decisions within the teams, as being somehow related to the success or failure on the field to the point that they hand the Super Bowl trophy to the owner of the team. Not the team captain, the owner. On the other hand, NFL teams are franchises and so owners have all of their downside protected by the League via the salary cap (the playing field is essentially level for all teams in terms of player salaries), revenue sharing from TV, licensing, merchandise, they receive public subsidies for stadiums from which they get to personally profit, etc. There is NO risk in owning an NFL team– all you have to do is have enough money to own one and then hire good managers and acquire good players and win (not nothing, obviously), but you can also NOT do that: you can stink at the minimum expectations of ownership for generations and still make a ton of money- JUST ASK MY FELLOW LIONS FANS.

Additionally, players can make millions, participate in commercial promotions, licensing deals, etc but their downside is 100% exposed- they are one knee injury away from being out of the league for good, and while contracts have guaranteed money, that is about all a player can really plan for and count on. Still, becoming a millionaire athlete is not the worst thing for players, especially since they, unlike the owners, often come from working class backgrounds and were, in that space, the NFL remains a dream. Have I mentioned the multi-billion dollar business of gambling among fans? Or the way in which the business of football– contracts, free agency, salary caps, trades– are the story of the sport for 75% of the year? The Draft is a part of that, too, of course. Fans at once love and resent this structure- they covet successful ownership and franchises, they hate players making money when they don’t perform, they love when they get a player on a relatively cheap contract and they over perform, etc. Fans *relate* to the business of the NFL and its veneration of ownership because the the NFL, wisely, makes the transactional nature of the day to day business of football transparent as a way of distracting from the obvious truth that it is enriching owners who carry little to no risk. #Merica

3. The Storytelling. This is, for me, the lowest common denominator factor of the NFL– it is a bunch of management in suits deciding to make the story of millionaire players and billionaire owners accessible by turning the league’s “brand” and “culture” into a constant dive into simple, conservative narratives via performative patriotism. It is no wonder that a sport where the business of the game perfectly reflects the economic system of the country that loves it needs to find a way to keep the masses happy and engaged outside of the 60 minutes on the field. And full credit to them: it was successful for a long, long time. But times are shifting and changing and the NFL continues to double down on its old world values, much to my massive personal disappointment. I don’t think the NFL brass wanted the game to become politically polarized, but they have been fostering a narrative that reenforces the inequities of the American system for so long, I don’t think they even realized they were doing it until it was too late (or perhaps the word is “inconvenient”) for them– the system they reenforce is literally the one that they perpetuate in their daily cultural and business practices. The NFL has done such a good job, like America itself, of driving perception away from its true moneymaking nature (subsidizing owners, no downside protection for players, all paid for by the fans to whom they try to pander) that they can prioritize the narrative theater of performative patriotism, crucial to the brand’s storytelling and identity, instead of acknowledging the concerns of their own players and many of their fans. 

Which of course leads me to The Draft. Even though I have a very hard time watching NFL games because all of the conditions above make me very, very disappointed, the one event that really connects all three phases of the NFL’s success is the Draft- it is where the dreams of the players come true, where the work of college football to introduce us to players becomes a story merged with the hopes and dreams of the team’s fans, who see a renewal and possibility in young, talented players. It ties in the very specific, nuanced aspects of the game- why is one player better than another? What “system” does an individual team run and what available players best fit that system? And it is the perfect platform for fan empowerment in the system: we all have our ideas of who is the best “fit” for our teams, if only these jerk owners and the dumb managers they hire would just see it and draft players OUR WAY! Bad drafts define management, as do good ones- it is a referendum on our perception of our team, on the future pain or success on the field that we will endure or enjoy as fans. And for many people, there is nothing more hopeful in America than watching primarily working class kids put on a suit and become rich on live TV. Throw in interest in your college program of choice and tracking where you favorite players land, and it is really another terrific event that enhances the fan relationship to their team, and thus the game, the league, the system. The Draft has become a huge event for these reasons- if it was boring to everyone, it wouldn’t be so popular. 

For me it has one huge flaw, but not a fatal one: Sports media (and thus the League’s) fixation on “human interest” stories among the players, which unfortunately, they tie to personal hardship which, once again, reenforces the idea that players are people just like you and me who have “worked hard” and now get to be “rich” and isn’t the NFL great for making that dream come true? On the one hand, I think that is great for the players. On the other hand, the constant reminder of a kid’s dead relative or how terrible the conditions of poverty are in which they grew up or how their father is incarcerated isn’t quite telling the story they think it is; it is mirroring a broken social system the NFL’s own narrative and fiscal model perpetuate.

Still gonna watch the Draft, tho.

Hoping my #DetroitLions get:

An Offensive Tackle at Pick 7 (Sewell or Slater in that order) or trade down (looking possible).

A Wide Receiver or LB in Round 2

A Saftey or Wide Receiver in Round 3

But let’s see what happens. 

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