The multi-day spectacle is a glorified infomercial. With commercials.
America, what is wrong with you?
After a successful trial run last year, the NFL Draft is back on prime-time television for 2011. Last year, some 45 million people tuned in for part of the annual spectacle where NFL teams choose from college football's top prospects. Labor strife notwithstanding, the number should be even bigger this year. This raises a question: Why? Couldn't the time people spend watching the draft be put to better use? Like, say, by counting ceiling tiles, watching grass grow, or just staring blankly into space?
The main problem with the draft as entertainment is obvious. The biggest, most dramatic question—who gets selected first overall—is always answered in the first 15 minutes. This year, in fact, we know the answer now. Auburn quarterback Cam Newton will be taken first overall by the Carolina Panthers. Not because anyone in Charlotte thinks Newton will lead his team to glory. That's not really a first overall pick's job. Really, his job is to excite fans and sell season tickets. Drafting a quarterback, even a bust-in-waiting like Newton, will always sell more seats than getting a linebacker or defensive end.
The draft hype, which started weeks ago and won't end for another month, peaks tonight with an hour-long SportsCenter special, "On the Clock," followed by live coverage of all seven rounds over the next three days. The NFL Network's broadcast will feature camera crews stationed inside team's draft rooms, presumably on the theory that fans want to watch scouts talk on the phone. ESPN will have cameras in the homes of top prospects all over the country, to capture the joy when a guy gets picked—and the shamefully entertaining squirms if he doesn't. SIRIUS XM radio host Dino Costa, not to be outdone, is broadcasting no fewer than 11 consecutive hours of live draft coverage, from Thursday night until Friday morning. It's hard to imagine what anyone could hope learn from 11 straight hours of draft coverage, beyond the fact that Dino Costa has made some questionable choices in his life. It's enough to make you want to watch the Royal Wedding.
Please don't misunderstand. Football is a good thing. Perhaps even the best of things. But the draft isn't football. There are no big hits, touchdowns, or roaring crowds. The draft is a glorified infomercial. With commercials. Sure, it's kind of neat to see a guy realize his dream of being drafted into the pros. Heartwarming, even. Once. Maybe twice. After that, unless you personally know the player getting drafted and therefore have a chance to join his entourage, it's hard to get too excited.
Maybe the draft wouldn't be so galling if the process weren't so deeply flawed. The entire edifice, though, is based on the absurd notion, as untrue in life as in sport, that your performance in college is an accurate predictor of your professional success. It so isn't. Consider some of the league's top quarterbacks. Aaron Rodgers was a first-round pick, but Drew Brees was a second-rounder. Tom Brady was famously not picked until the sixth round, 199th overall, and Tony Romo went completely undrafted. See a pattern there? No one else does either.
There's so much else to be annoyed by, too, like the blizzard of terminology, jargon, and folksy slang that seems specifically designed to make simple things sound complicated. The word "escapability," for instance, which is used by draftniks to mean "elusive," but would more accurately describe the quality possessed by a badly built jail. Or those football-speak racist euphemisms, like using "natural athlete" and "instinctive" to mean "black." And, lest we forget the ever-popular catch-all "character issues," which can mean anything from "he eats too much" to "the player has a tendency to get arrested more than usual." The sheer lack of genuine sports content can even create a sort of meta-annoyance. It is possible, for instance, to be irritated by people who make jokes about ESPN's longtime draft guru Mel Kiper Jr., and his very weird hair, yet simultaneously be so irritated by Mel Kiper Jr. and his very weird hair that you find yourself making the same bad jokes, thus becoming triply annoyed.
The draft is extra meaningless this year, of course, because of the league's labor strife. Despite Monday's order by a Federal judge for owners to lift their lockout, and the denial of the league's request to stay that ruling Wednesday, it doesn't look like players who get drafted over the next few days will be signing fat contracts any time soon. Players who don't get their name called have it even worse. Normally, even as the final rounds are winding down, undrafted players are getting calls from teams offering free agent deals. This year, those calls won't be coming. That means lots of kids will face a quandary. Does a guy just give up his lifelong dream of play pro football and start applying for jobs as a waiter? Or should he keep working out, hoping to catch on with a club when the lockout ends, perhaps going ever more deeply in debt to the agent who's covering his expenses?
Sadly, we don't get to see that drama played out. Instead, we get 36 hours of guys trying on a new hat.
Just think of all the more productive ways those hours could be spent tonight. Instead of the draft, you could watch American Idol or Community. You could even tune in for some actual sports. There's plenty of baseball on. The NBA playoffs are heating up. The NHL might be having their best postseason ever. There's even a little Arena Football this weekend—all which have the advantage of being actual competitions, rather than a bunch of people talking about competitions that will someday occur. And if all else fails, don't forget about the idea of just sitting and staring blankly into space. At least that way you know that Mel Kiper won't be involved.