Much has been written about problems with the NFL Draft, especially in recent years; however, few have explored the relationship between the draft and you. James Mastrangelo explores what the NFL Draft says about us as fans of football and members of society.
[Editor’s Note: It has come to our attention that many people are mistaking the video at the end of this piece for an ad. Ironically, the whole piece was inspired by and written around that video – please enjoy it, as we hope you will find it both enjoyable and instructive. Thank you.]
The NFL Draft. The lights. The stories. The personalities. The whole event crackles with the promise of youthful energy and virility. Among these young men will be those who rise up and achieve greatness on the field, and the league has put together a showcase worthy of the occasion of their ascendency. Those of you about to play: We salute you.
Is there anything about the NFL’s draft that we could possibly enjoy, if it weren’t for football? As a project of pomp and ceremony around the dehumanization of our fellow man for our entertainment – and make no mistake, football is surely entertaining – are we celebrating as much our own alienation? And yet, could we imagine doing otherwise? There is nobility in such striving, man against fellow man against odds. Against pain itself. There is a kind of truth here, this pushing against the limits of our human condition.
Perhaps, then, there is a kind of inexorable logic by which we are drawn to enjoy this debasement in motion, cheering for our favorite college players, who exhibit their own glee in turn at being chosen utterly independent of their own volition – a sign of having exhibited the excellence and the will making them worthy to be paid to engage in an ultimately life destroying game played with a ball.
Indeed, the NFL Draft manages to be an event despite itself being mere preparation for a game that won’t officially begin for another four months. Fans compete with one another to “win” the draft by demonstrating their superior knowledge of what they think will happen. Thus we join in the fun and the fray; rearrange ourselves according to, as Guy Dubord wrote in, The Society of the Spectacle, “the decline of being into having, and having into merely appearing.” Surely, the vast majority of us cannot play professional football – many of us didn’t even step onto the field on Friday nights; we are not men such as these. But we can be seen to appreciate the game. We can be superfans. We can be heroes – on any given Sunday. The commercials endeavoring to sell us the trappings we need for just that tell us so, featuring our joy in conquest by those athletes chosen for us by others to lead us to victory.
This choosing, this sorting and selecting of human lives about which they have no say, a practice which the Daily Show once compared unsettlingly to the slave trade, then, might well be the height of all that is objectionable – or could be, or should be, or would be but if… if it were not done in the name of sport? And the NFL Draft must be the pinnacle of that process of rendering the elite to mere commodities of consumption. The very term shares a common lineage with terms denoting the forced surrender of a person’s body and life to the direction of another in pursuit of victory in the dangerous objectives, as well as the drawing off of fermented liquid for intoxication.
It has been said that the key to writing good fiction is to write real life as though it could actually happen. Football, battle, and beer, coalesced into this single term: draft. How is that even possible?
This is not to in any way denigrate the genuine emotion we feel in the victory of our team. It is the very authenticity of that feeling, that experience, something visceral and real in a world where we so often must wear masks and affect our behavior to be professional, sociable, or respectable. Football is real. If there is anything that will weed out the pretenders and phonies – those without the talent or the will – surely it is this game of speed and physicality played by the elite physical specimens of the world.
In the draft, then, we observe both sides of the coin of human nobility. We see potential – potential for greatness, the realization of hard work and discipline over time. And if we celebrate that, we also denigrate those who cannot pass muster, who are weighed by the cruel demands of this undertaking and are found wanting. “Busts,” we call them. And the reviling of the busts is sport unto itself. The greatest busts are discussed almost as much as those who go on to greatness. Even potential busts (an ironic term if there is one to be found in our language) are a form of sport, as we prognosticate who in this draft class is most likely to fall short of what is hoped of them, even before they get an opportunity to prove themselves. And again, knowledge of busts may be worn as badge of honor just as much as prognostication of greatness, as the important thing is to be known for knowledge of this game.
Here, then, we revel in the tension between success and failure, glory and defeat, participating in a pageant that mirrors the human condition itself. The cruelties of the sport and the tenuousness of success mimic the harsh vicissitudes of life, bringing out all that is our humanity, a thing that lies, as Mark Twain tells us, somewhere, “between the Angels and the French.”
The draft casts light upon our ambivalence about our natures perhaps most vividly in the spectacle of the NFL Combine, an event which Sports Illustrated’s Doug Farrar has suggested by tweet that we, as a people, stop calling, the “Underwear Olympics.” And Farrar is surely right that the term is trite and even demeaning, but perhaps it is from there that the phrase draws its power, revealing as it does the most basic humanity of those we would prop up. A pretentiousness lurks below the facade of greatness in human achievement, and certainly Chris Jones understands how pretense no less than underpants may be punctured by even this simple contest.
By putting these athletes on display as such, we see in them the potential and peril we each face in our own lives. We wish to become players ourselves, if not participants in the game itself, then in the competitive understanding of it. Our own peaks and valleys, failings and qualities, made manifest to all through the articulation of true knowledge of the game to our peers with whom we share barbs, basking together in the projected light from the 50+ inch flatscreens in our Platonic man caves.
Of course, we need not be so confined in our strivings of fandom. We may boast and bray far and wide, enabled by our technological achievements. The leveling force of the internet has allowed us even to be heard by the gladiators themselves; they enjoy our laudations and feel the pain of our barbs, in effect equalizing – even if only in some small way – us all in this common social cause of football.
And so perhaps it should be no surprise that the corner of the internet known both affectionately and disaffectedly as “#DraftTwitter” might be a place of negative emoting. For while we hope for validation through grand victory, we are very much out of control of our very well-being, at least in some part. To be a fan is to abdicate emotional autonomy. Sunday becomes an alienation we take on as our own mantle, bringing great desire and the possibility of thrills and even ecstasy, but also exposing us to the agonies of defeat – irreversible and out of our control. It is Valentine’s Day meets Groundhog Day, complete with the Cassandric knowledge that things are going to turn out poorly for at least half of those who partake.
The draft forms the pinnacle of all this unresolved feeling, left only as a potential wholly outside our control. Perhaps it is no accident that the show is put on by a league that aspires to be the very embodiment of the harsh, unforgiving denial of the human yearning for autonomy – except for some small few lucky enough to own a team. All these pent up hopes and dreams, casting shadows of failure from falling short, depend ultimately upon the League, without which there would be no spectacle, no sport. So much of ourselves is wrapped up in and controlled by this unaccountable entity that represents so much of what we resent in life.
Entire fan bases have witnessed and felt harm from what seems to be the arbitrary wielding of power in instances ranging from game play to compensation to violence against other persons, the very epitome of the agent of our alienation. Moreover, the league considers this lack of responsibility to even norms of decency to be a feature, not a bug, referring to this nominal authority as the “broad discretionary powers” required to maintain “the integrity of the game.”
But we love the game, in all its terrible beauty. And the game would be neither so beautiful nor so terrible were the league not granted a de facto monopoly to provide the highest possible level of competition. And so we grant the league more power still. It’s what we want. It’s what we need to most intensify the experience of our participation, however tenuous. That we know the ugliness of this form of truculent, unrepentant and unaccountable power matters not; it is part of the game.
How, then, do we respond to this dressing up of ruthless and arbitrary control of our happiness, of our fates – a control carried out through the very real control of personal lives and livelihoods? And can there be a clearer example of this control than the NFL Draft, where strong, hardworking men sit around in vulnerable ignorance, waiting to hear to where and to whom they shall be shipped for their labor? How ought we to respond if confronted with the totem of this godlike force and it’s uncaring attitude towards we mere people, the unresisting source of its very power?
We boo. And we do so in celebration. That, as yet, cannot be taken away.
Observe and celebrate – and do make sure the volume is turned up!