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. 

Book Review: HITLER: DOWNFALL 1939-45

Photo by Karsten Winegeart on Unsplash

Tonight, I finished the second part of Volker Ullrich’s incredible biography of Hitler. I finished Volume I: ASCENT 1889-1939 last April, and had to wait until this past fall to get my hands on Volume II: DOWNFALL 1939-45. Both volumes are very different; the first focuses on the political rise of Hitler and the NSDAP (Nazi party) and the second covers Hitler’s day-to-day management of the “war of annihilation” that was WWII. As such, this book is a parade of delusional expectations that almost came true, and a never-ending carousel of military leadership changes, dumb decisions, lies, self-deceptions, and, most troubling, an arms-length distance to the absolute insanity of incalculable human loss.

The book wisely refuses to spend time psychoanalyzing Hitler (let me summarize: psychopath), and instead presents his actions within the social and historical framework in which they took place, with a strong understanding of the man’s duplicity and performative nature as being less symptomatic of some personality disorder and more a toolset deployed, consciously, to manipulate his allies and enemies. The book’s approach makes sense, because as a leader focused on the tactics and strategy of waging war, the tangible, physical reality of the regime’s previously unimaginable crimes were kept at a psychological remove in his life- and so they are in this book. He believed every action was justified, and while Ullrich details those justifications and gives them much needed context, it would be useless to read chapter after chapter with the author arguing with Hitler’s self-justifications. At the same time, it would also be immoral to present them without challenge, so the book does a great job of balancing these impulses and questions.

We stay with Hitler and his routines, travel, and the palace intrigues that he enabled. Huge catastrophes like the Battle of Stalingrad, D Day, and The Battle of The Bulge are covered, but this book is not a book about the individuals on the battlefields, executing the tactics on the ground, although we learn a LOT on a macro, tactical level about how the German Army (aka The Wehrmacht) won or lost battles. No, this is a book about a psychopathic, racist, fanatical anti-semite whose prejudices informed the disaster he made, always blaming others for failure and taking personal credit for success. In that way, it’s a bit of a hard read, because the man was an absolutely giant, self-satisfied asshole, and you get a heavy dose of that, alongside the groveling fealty of men like Joseph Goebbels, whose diaries frame much of the book(s).

There is a powerful section on the Holocaust, which is the scaffolding of the entire book for me, and which frames the massive crimes of not just the SS and the concentration camps, but the extrajudicial murder that, once normalized, was committed by all of the German forces in the Soviet Union, Poland, Ukraine, Yugoslavia, Hungary, and beyond. The unfathomable civilian and extrajudicial murder is discussed as being Hitler’s responsibility but also mentions there is no documented “direct order” from Hitler to enact the mechanics of the Holocaust because, as the book makes plain, his stance was de facto in favor of it, and his underlings knew it was what he wanted. In this way, despite innumerable mentions of “a solution to Jewish question,” the unconscionable act of genocide seems to have had little impact on Hitler’s psyche; his entire plan relied upon the death and removal of millions of people from Eastern Europe.

And so, faced with confronting the reality of the Holocaust, if there is one man about whom I wish the book had more to say, it is Heinrich Himmler, who, despite remaining somewhat elusive in the books, was an absolute piece of shit. I could have used more about the mechanics of his actions, but since he was involved in so many massive crimes, many of them undocumented by the official accounts of the regime, I’ll need to figure out how I can find out more and digest the idea of learning more about him.

I was interested in reading these books to give context to the past and to the present and I have to say, I cannot recommend them enough. Combined, not even counting the footnotes, it is a massive read, but I learned a ton I did not know and feel like I have a much better understanding of the era, of the scale of horrors in Europe leading up to and during WWII. What really resonated for me was learning more about The Red Army of the Soviet Union, who essentially saved the world through an absolutely unbelievable amount of sacrifice and loss.

Anyway, I wanted to document why reading these brilliantly written books about so much horror felt necessary, and why, during the pandemic and the second half of the Trumpist years, they gave me so much to consider. So, I’ll end this long post that likely no one is reading, with the final sentences of Volume II:
Hitler will remain a cautionary example for all time. If his life and career teach us anything, it is how quickly democracy can be prised from its hinges when political institutions fail and civilizing forces in society are too weak to combat the lure of authoritarianism; how thin the mantle separating civilization and barbarism actually is; and what human beings are capable of when the rule of law and ethical norms are suspended and some people are granted unlimited power over the lives of others.

Bravo to Volker Ullrich for an unforgettable reading experience.