Sunday, April 26, 2020

The NFL Draft Reaches Its Deranged Apotheosis in Roger Goodell's Rumpus Room

The NFL Draft is already the most absurd spectacle on television, a slurry of brands and military hardware and grim self-serious analysts solemnly intoning that a player has tremendous instincts and sideline-to-sideline speed but might not have the SIZE and LENGTH to contribute right away in the NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE, but the fact that we are all sealed in our homes during a terrifying pandemic meant that NFL was going to reach operatic heights of absurdity.

For weeks leading up to the draft, we had heard about the technical challenges.  There have been stories about how GMs are converting their houses into Draft War Rooms, installing nuclear submarine defense infrastructure to their suburban mansions and complaining about the possibility of rogue cells waging Cyberwar against their zoom conference calls even though, as far as I can tell, the entire infrastructure of drafting involves being able to pick a name off a list and make a few phone calls.

The WNBA had done its draft with few hiccups a few weeks earlier, and everything had more or less worked out.  The show cut between commissioner Cathy Engelbert, a small ESPN crew of analysts, draft picks in their homes, and reporter Holly Rowe interviewing them.  There were a few glitches-- several draft picks had not been told to mute their televisions or use headphones so we got the classic sports radio situation of needing someone to scream "you gotta turn down your radio" at a person although these are professional athletes and not a mustache guy in the middle of proposing a baroque series of trades to reacquire Robby Gould, but watching the players at home celebrating with their families was very charming.  The NFL saw this and decided to brand its version a Virtual Draft; the GM of the Detroit Lions made his IT guy live in a Winnebago outside his house in case some villainous hackers decided to break into the Lions' mainframe and gain the incredible draft intelligence that the Lions were targeting shitty football players.

The NFL draft included a solemn introduction from Roger Goodell who wanted to talk about These Uncertain Times.  Goodell lives for this.  He seems to see the NFL as the nexus of brands and a nebulous form of American patriotism involving tanks, and the solution to every crisis is a sluice of ads showing concern over triumphant piano music.  Goodell's ideal response to a global catastrophe would be to fuse members of the military into exoskeletons made from the Official Pickup Truck of the NFL to shoot at the virus with laser guns while Domino's Pizza solemnly remembers the fallen.  They started the draft with a performance of the National Anthem and then cut to a TV monitor full of people who had painted their faces to look like footballs.

Goodell, standing in a rumpus room decorated with carefully curated knickknacks, was not up to the task of whatever he was trying to accomplish. His wooden bearing reminded me of the famously cadaverous Chicago-area lawyer Peter Francis Geraci who has been haunting UHF airwaves since the mid-1980s or a hapless Vice President of Ketchups thanking the Sun Belt Conference for participating in the Amalgamated Condiments Bowl.  His face was red as a sockeye salmon. He later changed into a sweater and then, on day two, managed to slip into a focus-grouped easy chair.  The whole setup reminded me of one of those Sally Struthers correspondence school infomercials. 

The business of the draft itself remained hilariously mundane.  This is because the essence of the draft remains a televised list reading.  In many ways, the virtual draft served as a more normal televised event than usual because most of the insane spectacle of the draft involved packing thousands of people into a Bud Light Draft Zone where they can stand in line to do the drill where you have to run through tires with your KNEES UP DAMMIT or to don jerseys and scream at picks that they have absolutely never heard of before Goodell would come out flanked by another group of military personnel.  

Some of the weirdest parts of the draft involved attempts to awkwardly recreate the live experience.  Goodell invited fans to boo him via zoom.  Before every pick, Goodell would bring up a small smorgasbord of teleconferenced fans in full team regalia to cheer the picks while he goaded them in a  manner that can best be described as executively.  The fans were barely visible and audible; even though ESPN has rebranded as the network that lets Michael Jordan say "fuck" or even Scottie Pippen, it is not going to let some guy in an elaborate, homemade Los Angeles Rams headpiece bellow one out on national television in front of you, the Commissioner of the National Football League, and God.

The other change from the draft is that it brought us inside the homes of NFL coaches and general managers and dozens of draft picks. This provided us with several shots of goatee guys in team-branded apparel doing some action packed texting in carefully-prepared draft areas where they could ostentatiously display as-told-to books by football players on Leadership or revel in Kliff Kingsbury's palatial opulence, or even cut to Mike Vrabel allowing his rowdy, mulleted sons to operate a carnival of the bizarre in the background.  ESPN's analysts also set up at home except for Mel Kiper, who appeared to have transported himself into a 1990s CD-ROM game.

The draft's attempt to straddle the line between bone-crunchin' football action and solemn discussions of the global pandemic and concurrent economic crash was handled in the same ridiculous and ham-handed way that the NFL handles anything but talking about football and the same ludicrous ways that corporations are maneuvering to continue selling things.  Every few minutes, the draft would give way to a series of identical commercials about These Uncertain Times; the eerie repetition of that phrase and the attempts by Taco Bell to show resilient heroes grasping their taco boxes has put us all into a George Saunders short story.

And yet, in its own moronic way, the NFL draft did provide a useful service this weekend.  Along with ESPN's Bulls documentary, the draft served as a vaguely sports adjacent thing to put onto television that millions of people would be watching and you could follow along and make dumb jokes with all of the other people who like to do the same thing on the internet, and if that meant having to endure a quavering Goodell invoking The Power of America and Specifically Football In These Uncertain Times and to watch as the Bears picked a Notre Dame Guy and no one took anyone from Northwestern then so be it.

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