The NFL's Draft Day Hypocrisy

The propagandistic Kevin Costner movie inadvertently highlights just how much pro football doesn't live up to its own ideals.
Summit / Lionsgate

The National Football League has long shown itself to be super-sensitive when it comes its image on film and TV. In 2003, for instance, pressure from NFL execs reportedly caused ESPN to abruptly cancel its edgy, well-received weekly drama about a fictional pro football league. Last year, the NFL was rumored to have intervened again to make ESPN back out of a deal to collaborate with PBS’s Frontline on a documentary about head injuries. ESPN’s president later denied that claim, but the league’s stance was clear nonetheless: Frontline producer Michael Kirk publicly said the NFL was as uncooperative during the filmmaking process as the CIA had been for previous documentaries he’d worked on.

So it’s significant that Draft Day, the new Kevin Costner vehicle about pro football, appears to have been made in full cooperation with the famously touchy league officials. The film, whose plot pits a team’s general manager against a racing clock and mounting odds on the day of the much-hyped annual NFL draft, features real NFL stadiums, real NFL franchises, and real NFL logos. League commissioner Roger Goodell, who reportedly met with ESPN execs in person last year to express displeasure with the Frontline series, even appears in a few scenes as himself.

The extent of the NFL’s involvement—officials even got to veto one scene—essentially marks Draft Day as a promotional tool. That mere fact might be unsettling in itself; filmgoers are essentially paying to see a feature-length ad for the league. Ironically, though, to anyone paying attention to the state of football, Draft Day fails not only as entertainment (both its jokes and its poignant moments feel clichéd, and several of its smaller subplots appear and disappear all too conveniently) but also as propaganda. Its sunny message—that the NFL ultimately seeks players of great character over players of great talent—merely highlights the gap between what the NFL should be and what it really is.

The story centers on Sonny Weaver, Jr. (Costner), the fictional GM of the Cleveland Browns. On the morning of the NFL draft, Weaver accepts a barter from another coach and finds himself in possession of the No. 1 overall pick in that evening’s draft. His staff rejoices: Now, they can land the gorgeous, charismatic Bo Callahan—the most promising young quarterback in years.

Not so fast, Sonny warns. They barely know anything about Callahan; they’ve already got Brian Drew, a once-promising starting quarterback that they shouldn’t give up on yet (played by the always-earnest Tom Welling); and, unbeknownst to his staff, Weaver has a soft spot for Vontae Mack (Chadwick Boseman), a good-hearted, if outspoken, linebacker who’s likely to get drafted in the later rounds if the Browns don’t claim him. Mack chats on the phone with Weaver throughout the big day while caring for his two small nephews, newly in his custody after his sister’s recent death from cancer.

When Browns personnel vet Callahan, they find a clean record except for one thing: a 21st-birthday party that was broken up by the authorities. No big deal, Weaver shrugs—we were all 21 once.

But: “Ask me who wasn’t there,” the Browns’ investigator says. Who? Whose names aren’t there in the report? “Any of his teammates.”

That’s right: It suddenly seems possible that none of Bo Callahan’s college teammates came to his 21st birthday party. Weaver becomes wary, and as more circumstantial evidence mounts, he begins to have serious doubts about Callahan’s personality. How can the Browns draft a guy who might secretly be a jerk?!

(There are inconsequential side plots, too: Jennifer Garner plays Weaver’s colleague and not-so-secret girlfriend, who’s just revealed that she’s pregnant with his child. Ellen Burstyn plays Weaver’s recently widowed mother; his father was the Browns GM before Sonny, Jr. took over, and Mom inexplicably shows up in his office with an urn because today, of all days, is the day they must scatter Sonny, Sr.’s ashes over the practice field.)

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Ashley Fetters is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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