Monday, May 13, 2019

The NFL Draft is the Strangest Spectacle on Television

At least the Super Bowl, the NFL's great spectacle of football and bizarre halftime entertainment and people huddling in house parties to see how a truck is going to be sold to them does surround a football game-- one that decides which team gets rings, the parade, and a special on NFL Network where one of the available Baldwin Brothers will growl-narrate how that tough loss to Carolina in Week 10 was the turning point of the season that brought them together.  The NFL Draft, though, is the league's greatest achievement in Verhoeven spectacle, a three-day extravaganza of people reading a list of football players that subsumed no less than three entire television networks full of suit guys screaming made-up words like ELITE EXPLOSION-FACTOR.  The NFL brings out former players to yell about the picks, along with inspiring children and military personnel; eventually it devolves into inexplicable, demented skits such as this one about murderous hail of footballs:
The NFL Draft is so compelling to me because it is the NFL distilled to its essence.  The Super Bowl represents the NFL making its case as an institution woven inextricably into the American fabric, an unavoidable event that has turned itself into a secular holiday and must hold everyone's attention with things that Americans unequivocally like: musical extravaganzas, commercials where animated animals blast farts at each other.  The draft, on the other hand, is an even weirder phenomenon, a bizarre and arcane morass of scouting and salary cap esoterica involving amateur players that 95 percent of the audience has never heard of; the NFL has willed this into an unfathomably popular avant-garde television program.  The NFL has done this because the NFL exists in a strange bubble where the NFL draft and its celebration of tape-eating and incomprehensible scouting lingo and screeching about "elite measurables" and "questionable attitude" because a college player wore a coat or headbutted someone is the most important thing in the world. 

The NFL draft is extremely popular.  It exists on network television instead of broadcast on close-circuit television in a grubby OTB next to some depiction of that ubiquitous internet drawing of monkeys swordfighting unfolding in real life.  Thousands of people filled the streets of Nashville for the event in garish face paints to react in triumph or agony or, after the first round, general bemusement since they've never heard of the vast majority of the players and so they just do some generic football yelling.  Fans gather in bars or even their own stadiums to watch the draft on television solely, as far as I can tell, to generate internet memes when their team reaches for the wrong quarterback.  Few things in the NFL draft will ever be as funny as when the Bears invited Mike Glennon to their official draft party so he could watch them trade up to select his replacement before he sheepishly bobbleheaded his way out of there in embarrassment. 

When you're blindsided by Trubisky

Why is the NFL draft so popular?  I have no idea. The Internet Style Guide suggests I should simply take my own bizarre reasons for watching this and throw a "we" in the headline so I could write something like "We Watch the NFL Draft for The Excesses of Grotesque, Corporate Pageantry And Also To See Who Will Select Clayton Thorson" or, even better, "Stop Watching the Draft So You Can Write About It At Length for your Blogspot Website." 

The Philadelphia Eagles select Clayton Thorson in the fifth round in the 
background of a Street Fighter II Guile Fight

Part of it, if I were to venture a guess, comes as a part of the NFL's imperial domination of American sports discourse.  Part of it also comes from the excitement of player selection, where fans who support the lowest, shittiest teams can look at 45 seconds of some fifth-round guy shredding MAC defenses who had a very impressive time in the Cone Drill and imagine him doing the same thing to the Cincinnati Bengals.  And part of it is because even though a very small number of people watching have any sort of mechanism to scout players even by the dubious methods used by professionals, a consensus emerges before the draft about the top players and it is very fun to collectively mock teams for departing from it.


My favorite part of the draft is its bizarre argot.  Not only does the NFL draft have its own stupid and incomprehensible jargon where very serious men with tie knots the size of an infant's skull come up with a dumber way to say that someone is big or fast, it also incorporates all of the numerous and idiotic ways people talk about football and sports in general in the twenty-first century. Here is a brief taxonomy:

1. Football-Knower lingo that is used by television personalities who have spent so much time around football that they have no idea how normal human beings talk and by non-professionals who really want everyone else to know that they have seen the All 22 footage.  The greatest exponent of this is Jon Gruden.  There's an old profile of Gruden from the New Yorker most notable for the impossibly ludicrous New Yorker diaresis dropped on the phrase "offensive coördinator" that details how he gets up at 3:17AM to spend hours and hours in a storage shed watching tape to prepare for his broadcasts in order to explain to viewers that (chuckle) lemme tell ya, this Peyton Manning is a heckuva quarterback.

2. Scout Talk about Motors, and Get-offability, and all of that nonsense.  A few years ago, the word they kept using was "sudden," which was a genuine literary invention-- you can imagine Mel Kiper, Jr. reading from a new short story to his writer's workshop "It only took an instant for the clouds to break over Richard 'Dreadnought' Grench's face or for a joke to curdle into a sulk. He was sudden--just like his swim move that let him lead the Big Twelve in Quarterback Hurries before the plantar injury against Baylor."  The weirdest thing about Scout Talk is when they start sizing up player's bodies by talking about "adding to their frames" and doing Butt Phrenology.

Every year, they come up with a sillier and more abstract way of saying the same thing but invent clumsy new term to make it sound more technical and complicated.  The NFL loves sounding technical and complicated.  Football fans love when their Football Men do Football Talk.  The result is a David Mamet play breaking out in between footage of some Big 12 receiver scoring touchdowns and mascots standing underneath a fighter jet.  I genuinely wonder what these draft expert goofballs are like outside this milieu, whether their bromides about twitchy motors is just some schtick they can turn off or whether they spend all their time bellowing at each other about elite get-off moves in diners or when being fitted for enormous pin-striped suits.

3. Advanced Stats analyses that exist mainly to throw cold water on the Scout Talk and to remind everyone about how essentially random the draft can be while simultaneously peddling numbers that actually correlate to draft success.  The Advanced Stats dialect exists mainly to heap scorn onto general managers who select quarterbacks based on them being tall and having strong jawlines and to explain that ninety percent of what happens in a football game is luck and will eventually regress to the mean.

4. Dumb Guy Analytics, which is when square-headed Football Guys clumsily try to repackage their anodyne Football Guy insights as some sort of advanced stats like when you get one of the infinite varieties of Trents Dilfer donning an extra large accounting visor and standing quizzically in front of a chalkboard that says Trent's Advanced Stats while he comes up with Quarterback Wins.  This is one of the best things about football and should only be encouraged.

5. Asset Chat that is part of the financialization of all things sports. The new buzzword in the NFL draft is Draft Capital.  The idea that drafting is far more random than the TV guys want to think and that the best strategy involves just getting as many picks as possible makes sense.  At the same time, the invention of complex charts about pick depreciation and analyses that examine the draft based entirely on byzantine pick swap strategies all read like this clip of a professional wrestler who is also wearing head-chainmail for reasons I have no interest in exploring:

There are plenty of other insane things about the NFL draft-- the militarism, the overwhelming and preening presence of Roger Goodell even as he gets showered in boos, the draft's devolution from ludicrous self-seriousness to bizarre skits, the inevitable and wearying tedium of the draft's final day-- but none of these things can ever be as strange and inexplicable as the existence of the draft and its attendant spectacle itself.      

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