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.)
In the end (spoiler alert), Callahan does get drafted—but not as the No. 1 overall, and not before being thoroughly humiliated as a result of his own arrogance. Meanwhile, Ray Jennings (played by Texans running back Arian Foster), the talented son of a former Browns star whose draft stock is in jeopardy because of a recent arrest, ultimately proves to Weaver that he’s humble and earnest enough to deserve a spot on the Browns roster.
And thanks to a few heroic last-second maneuvers by Weaver, the hard-working family man Vontae Mack becomes the unlikeliest No. 1 overall pick in NFL history. The Browns staff applauds Weaver’s decision; Mack, who’s spending draft night at home in Louisiana rather than at Radio City Music Hall, celebrates with all his relatives hugging him on the couch; Brian Drew wells up with tears—his job is safe!—and kisses his wife and daughter.
So this is the NFL according to the NFL: GMs go to great lengths to identify and avoid players who lack integrity; bad teammates eventually get what’s coming to them; the good guys come out on top. But even the league’s biggest fans are likely to roll their eyes at these outcomes. “The moves Costner’s GM character makes in the movie are so reckless that he would have been fired sometime shortly after the first pick in the draft,” CBS Houston’s Sean Pendergast wrote in an otherwise favorable review.
Indeed, there’s little evidence that the league really puts this much emphasis on keeping bad guys and bad teammates out of its franchises. For example, Miami Dolphins guard Richie Incognito, who made headlines in November for a bullying scandal that showed him to be one of the worst NFL teammates in recent memory, went unpaid for all of two games before his suspension was lifted in February. (It's worth noting that Incognito's contract with the Dolphins was set to expire in March anyway; meanwhile, the Oakland Raiders have expressed interest in signing him for next season.) And according to USA Today’s database of NFL arrests, in 2013 alone, police documented 57 arrests of pro football players, including six arrests for domestic violence, three for assault, one for attempted murder, and one for murder. To date, only three of those have resulted in a player getting cut from his team: Aaron Hernandez (arrested for murder), Ausar Wolcott (attempted murder), and A.J. Jefferson (domestic violence).
Numbers like that make it a little harder to accept the notion that the NFL really tries to prioritize character over talent.
And it’s nice of Draft Day to imply that it’s OK, one little petty crime isn’t a big deal; everybody deserves a fair chance in the draft. That message doesn’t exactly mesh, though, with real-life NFL officials’ suggestions that your draft stock could take a hit if it surfaces that you’re gay or that you fell victim to an embarrassing high-profile hoax once.
Draft Day, predictably, presents the NFL as the NFL would like you to see it. And don’t get me wrong—the NFL of Draft Day is the NFL as I would like to see it, too, someday. But an NFL that actually takes painstaking measures to spot a lack of character and steer clear of it? That actively works to keep out players who aren’t decent, morally upstanding guys? Today, that’s just a little too far-fetched.