Right Field

Why Is the Draft So Engrossing to NFL Fans?

Some comedian once called the NFL Draft “The Oscars for Straight Men,” and there is something to that label. While everyone will “grade” the teams’ drafts, and fans will argue and kibitz about who their team should have drafted, there are no definitive winners or losers. One of the more ridiculous aspects of the day is how every team claims to have gotten the players they wanted or rated highest. Just once, it would be thrilling to hear a general manager come out and say, “Look, we know he’s a reach, but all of the guys we rated highest were picked already, the coach and head scout got into a screaming match, the clock was ticking down and so I flipped a coin. Knowing his pain-in-the-tush agent, he’s probably going to hold out most of training camp, anyway.”

But for the players, there’s a bit of genuine emotion. It’s one of the few sporting events where fans watch athletes out of uniform, and where we see NFL players without their helmets on. Last night, we witnessed Mark Ingram cry as Suzy Kolber read him an e-mail from his jailed father, former NFL receiver Mark Ingram Sr., saying how proud he was of his son.

For these young men, the day is the fulfillment of years of work, and the achievement of a long-desired goal. No matter what comes next, they are officially professional football players, the pinnacle of athletes in their sport and at their age.

How many of us get that, particularly at such a young age? Almost none of us. (I was a free-agent signing for NR after being on the practice squad at CQ and a few years doing special-teams work for Washington wire services.) No one applauds us on our first day on the job, nor do we get to hold up a company uniform with the number one on it. Sure, these young men arrive with enormous, perhaps impossible expectations and pressure. But most of us would relish a day like Draft Day for one of the top picks.

So that explains why Draft Day is important to players. But why do fans watch it? Why does it sometimes get higher television ratings than the NBA playoffs?

It’s been three months since the Super Bowl, and for most fans, four months since they’ve seen their team play, maybe five months since they’ve played a meaningful game. Like those first days of pitchers and catchers, nothing’s gone wrong yet, and that first-round pick might be the impact player that suddenly transforms a team. Fans of the worst teams can dream of a sudden vault to respectability; respectable teams envision that turning-point season that ends with a trip to the playoffs, and every playoff team’s fans can picture their favorite stars hoisting the Lombardi trophy while confetti showers down. Nobody’s torn an ACL yet. Nobody’s holding out. (Nobody except, well, everybody.) There’s no sign that any player is struggling with a change of position or new playbook yet. For two days in spring, every NFL fan gets to luxuriate in sparkling possibility, instead of dealing with the messy, frustrating, unpredictable reality.

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