It’s NFL Draft day three. As a football fan, I’m glad it’s over.
I love the NFL Draft, oh yes I do. The first round, which aired Thursday, is four hours of football geekery, real emotion and — especially when NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell goes in for a bro hug — high camp. But it’s also a spectacle that should for all intents and purposes be abolished.
If it was a food, the NFL Draft would be a meat-lovers pizza with a cheese-stuffed crust: so bad for you, yet oh so good.
The way the draft operates is demonically simple: The worse your franchise, the higher your pick and the greater your number of choices and possibilities among the assembled throngs of talent. Sounds fair, even wholesome, but the underbelly is anything but.
The abolition of the NFL Draft — and all sports drafts — should be something that unites people across the political spectrum. Free-marketeers should oppose the idea of conscripted labor; the market and the free will of the individual should make that decision. People more inclined to workers’ rights and union power should also oppose conscription, salary restrictions on athletes’ first contracts and sending someone thousands of miles from their home when perhaps the team across town would bid for their services. No to football cartels!
Yet this is complicated by the fact that people across the political spectrum also enjoy the tradition. If it was a food, the NFL Draft would be a meat-lovers pizza with a cheese-stuffed crust: so bad for you, yet oh so good.
Any arguments for the draft crumble under even the most basic scrutiny. Most of the people who believe in it and don’t just write it off as a guilty pleasure claim that without the draft, poor teams would never get better and “big-market clubs” would just sign all the best players, with media-friendly cities getting the best young talent.
This is poppycock, and it sounds very similar to arguments that were made in the 1970s when old-timers said the same pitfalls would result if baseball adopted free agency. But the ability of players to move around to the team of their choice ushered in an era of competitive balance the likes of which the game had never seen.
It turns out players want to go to cities where they will be paid the most money and have the best chances to play, not necessarily the Yankees. And in this era of social media, there is no fame differential between playing in New York or Green Bay. Just ask erstwhile “Jeopardy!” host Aaron Rodgers.
If we did away with the current draft format, we would get a better sport.
If we did away with the current draft format, we would get a better sport, as the best players would not go to dysfunctional franchises, and there would be pressure on franchise owners to actually hire competent people instead of their failsons, so as to actually compete.
Will No. 1 pick and media darling Trevor Lawrence succeed as quarterback on the Jacksonville Jaguars? Maybe, but his degree of difficulty is much higher because he has to go to the Jacksonville Jaguars, a team that has winning seasons about as often as Donald Trump eats a salad.
So many NFL Draft “flops” are situational; the wrong player in the wrong place at the wrong time. With an injury rate that puts the average career at 3 1/2 years, that doesn’t give a player much time or space to reach their potential, especially if they play for a haphazard franchise.
The draft rewards dysfunction and sub-mediocrity, sending exciting players to teams where failure is a probability. As Will Leitch wrote for New York magazine, “Bad teams are generally bad for long stretches, and good teams find ways to be good essentially every year; 19 teams have drafted first since Tom Brady and the Patriots won their first Super Bowl, and not a single one of them won a Super Bowl after making that pick. (There is something perverse about funneling the top talent to the worst teams anyway — these are teams that have proven to be the least likely to maximize a player’s skills.)”
Not having a draft would also prevent the process known as “tanking,” where teams lose basically on purpose to improve their draft position. Fans often clamor for tanking, if their team gets off to an awful start, but this process creates a culture of institutional failure that fresh-cheeked draftees are unable to turn around.
Let’s check in on Zach Wilson of the Jets in five years and see how being in the green Jersey swamp is working out for him. (As someone raised a Jets fan, I write that last sentence with no small amount of sadness.)
The draft should not exist. It objectively makes sports worse and isn’t fair to the athletes. But then, the draft is also really fun. It’s good, but it’s not good for us. In other words, it’s like so much else in our junk food culture. I love it. And I’ll also be grateful when it’s gone.