The NFL draft has become such an overblown three-day television event that it’s a bit jarring — and hilarious — to go back and look at the low-budget production that was the 1981 NFL draft.
ESPN televised the draft way back then, when it took place at a small hotel ballroom, not Radio City Music Hall. We hear the names of great players like Giants draft pick Lawrence Taylor and 49ers draft pick Ronnie Lott, but back then the draft was, in the words of sports media critic Ed Sherman, a basement-like amateur production.
About 40 minutes of that 1981 draft broadcast are available in four 10-minute YouTube videos, and they’re fun to watch for football fans who want to take a stroll down memory lane. Part 1 shows NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle announcing George Rogers as the first overall pick and then awkwardly ceding the podium to Rogers, who looks baffled that he’s actually been brought to New York to be there in person. (This year 26 players will attend the draft; that year Rogers was the only one.)
In Part 2, you’ll get a good look at how cheesy the graphics were and how primitive the process of compiling information was. No computers are seen anywhere, and Paul Zimmerman of Sports Illustrated, who played the role of draft analyst in those pre-Mel Kiper days, has a pile of papers in front of him and looks more interested in filling out his charts than he is in talking to studio host George Grande.
In Part 3, Howard Cosell is brought on to give his thoughts, and he blasts the draft as “the most overrated, over-propagandized annual event in American Sport.” If that’s how Cosell thought about the minor event the draft was then, he would have been beside himself if he had lived to see the spectacle the draft has become now.
Part 4 shows that Rozelle — who is always viewed as a visionary in understanding the role football could play on television — had absolutely no idea how to explain a draft trade to a television audience. Rozelle stumbled over himself repeatedly while explaining which picks were traded, and generally looked uncomfortable throughout. Rozelle was reportedly surprised when he learned that anyone actually thought the draft was worth televising.
What’s really striking (aside from all the mustaches) is the lack of information in the pre-information age: In 2012 we’re accustomed to watching both ESPN and NFL Network deploy an army of reporters who bring inside information from teams’ draft rooms, and to having all the information we could ask for about every player available online. In 1981 what passes as inside information is laughable: At one point ESPN brought an analyst on to talk about the Dolphins’ draft decision, and this is his entire report about why the Dolphins would draft a running back: “I read somewhere that Miami has a halfback who’s had certain personal problems and wants to be traded or whatever.”
From Chris Berman doing an interview in a restaurant to the Giants’ punter being brought in to say what he thinks about having Taylor as a new teammate, watching the 1981 draft is a study in seeing just how much the NFL has changed. Undoubtedly for the better.