I spent three hours last night watching what has to be the most incomprehensible TV program possible for anyone outside the loop. The loop, in this case, is hard-core fans of the National Football League, and while our numbers are legion, we’re not ubiquitous; football haters likewise abound. And not to get too gender-cliche-y, the NFL draft does strike me as a potential battlefield in the war of the sexes. It’s a guy thing. Guys like football, action movies, and NASCAR; gals like gymnastics/ice skating, chick flick romcoms, and mini-vans. Of course there are also lots of exceptions–girls who like football, for example; not to mention Danica Patrick. But cliches exist because they have some basis in reality. ESPN has both male and female anchors, and yes, Chris McKendry does draft analysis, just as Linda Cohn is a hockey expert. Still, I watched the draft last night, and while my wife was exceedingly awesome about it, she conspicuously didn’t watch with me.
Anyway, the NFL draft. Boy, is it weird. I’m sort of a football fan, even, and I get how weird it is. So here’s how it works: college football players are put into a pool of candidates, and NFL teams take turns choosing which ones they want; they then have exclusive rights to sign their selections to a contract. Yes, it’s exactly the same system used to pick sides in junior high school gym class: “I’ll pick Bobby; okay, I pick Sam.” Imagine that every person who graduated from college in Accounting were then meticulously ranked and underwent accounting skills tests and interviews, and then every Accountancy firm in America got to pick, in order, which ones they wanted to hire. That’s the basic principle.
I watched last night because of Ziggy. Ezekial Ansah, who played football at BYU this past fall. Ziggy is from Ghana, where he played a little basketball, but no football at all, ever. He joined the Church, came to BYU, and then was persuaded by roommates to try out for the football team. The roommates thought maybe Coach Mendenhall might find some use for a guy 6’5″, 275 pounds, who was also a fantastic natural athlete–incredibly fast and quick. And, by all accounts, a heck of a great kid. Coach worked him out, and couldn’t believe what he saw. My favorite Ziggy story–apparently at one point, he told his roommates that he thought he’d quit the team. He liked it and all, enjoyed the camaraderie, liked the coaches and his teammates, but he came from Ghana, after all, needed to put his education first. I mean, it’s not you could make any money at this football thing, right? Right? (Ziggy was drafted fifth, by the Detroit Lions. Last year, the fifth pick in the draft signed a contract for 18.5 million dollars.)
I am a deeply conflicted football fan. I probably would not have allowed a son to play high school ball, for example; not that either of my boys wanted to. It’s a dangerous, violent game, with serious health consequences for way too many players. It’s also beautiful, with an occasional athleticism that takes your breath away, and the guys who play it professionally talk about how much they love it, and miss it when they can’t play anymore. And I look at the NFL draft, and part of me is thrilled for these guys, for the bright (and wealthy) futures their drafting portends. It’s about opportunity–an opportunity for guys to do well, but also an opportunity for teams to improve themselves. That’s why we watch–we want to see who our favorite team drafted, and fantasize about how great they’re going to be.
But you also can’t help but notice another resemblance–to a slave auction. Before the draft, there’s the NFL Combine, where all the players run and lift weights and jump and undergo interviews and take intelligence tests. Are weighed and prodded and examined. And the top physical specimens are then selected, without having any choice in the matter. Ziggy Ansah blew everyone away at the Combine–he’s a sensational athlete. He also has less football experience than anyone else in the draft. He’s seen as a ‘project,’ with a ‘high ceiling.’ For that potential, the Detroit Lions will be gambling 18-20 million dollars. And Ziggy will have no choice but to move to Detroit. He’s from Ghana. Perhaps he would find a gentler clime more congenial. Tough noogies–it’s Detroit or nothing.
Now, if he’s a slave, he’s an exceptionally well compensated one. The draft exists to ensure competitive balance–bad teams get the best players. And nobody is forced to participate–either in the Combine or the draft. You can choose to do something else with your life. But if you want to play professional football. . . .
And this is on television? Yep. The teams select players in ten minute increments. So what happens is that a team picks a player, announced by Roger Goodell, the commissioner of the NFL, and the guy who got picked comes up and poses for a picture with him, and then these ESPN talking heads analyze the choice. Chris Berman (aka Boomer) starts off, but defers to the real experts, Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay. For years, Mel Kiper was the draft guru. He was employed by ESPN at what I have to assume is a preposterous salary just to do this, just to work, basically, one day a year. And, my gosh, the guy really is an expert, with an encyclopedic knowledge of essentially every player on every team in all of college football, their strengths and weaknesses, and how they fit the needs of the NFL teams considering them. Then, the last couple of years, ESPN hired McShay, a second guy to do the same job.
And it’s one of the highest rated shows on television. Hour after hour, we watch. Imagine high school graduation. Imagine, then, that the principal took ten minutes between announcing each graduating kid. Imagine that your basic high school graduation ceremony took three days to complete. Now imagine it being televised, and getting a twenty share.
Also, if you’re a fan, you’re a fan of one team, right? I’m a 49ers fan; I root for the San Francisco 49ers. Obviously, for a kid in Indiana, I would root for sports teams from the Bay area. Anyway, I was rooting for Ziggy, but after he was drafted, I kept watching. I wanted to see who my team picked. And I had opinions! On who they ought to pick! I was hoping for a defensive end, a cornerback, or a safety. They picked Eric Reid, a safety from LSU. I knew a lot about the guy; fast, good tackler, could be the next Ronnie Lott. I liked the pick. And I am, at best, a casual football fan. In other words, I watched TV for three hours, tension building, anticipation mounting, for one moment that lasted maybe ten seconds (“The San Francisco 49ers, with the 18th pick in the NFL draft, select Eric Reid. . . “)
It is, a lot, like graduation, where you wait in uncomfortable chairs for that moment when your kid gets her diploma. Or, like, her 3rd grade play, where you know she’s playing the crucial role of Third Tree, and you sit there waiting for her one line (“Trees also provide shade”). Which you already know, because you drilled her on it for, like, days. That’s what you’re there for. You could give a darn about all the other kids.
It’s complete, utter insanity. The NFL draft, its massive popularity and the fantastic ratings it gets on TV, it’s completely crazy. It’s not just the most boring show on television, it’s the most boring show you can imagine anyone ever putting on TV. And I’m, at best, a casual fan of the sport; mostly, I’m conflicted about whether I should keep watching football. Let alone a show about sorting young wizards into their respective Houses (Mel and Todd arguing about who Gryffindor drafted). Neither of them wearing a Sorting Hat.
And I watched it for three hours last night.
And it’s on again tonight. And I’ll probably watch it tonight too.
Guys, let’s face it. We’re nuts. Why on earth do women put up with us?